Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Sfumato’s folk album offers brain-expanding arrangements

September 28, 2012

When you know the rules, even the decisions you make to break them are made in relation to the rules. Sometimes this results in Jackson Pollock, but mostly it results in field homogenization that takes the mysterious x factor called “genius” to transcend. But if you never knew the rules to begin with, all bets are off–anything can happen.

Sfumato‘s These Things Between… is the folky embodiment of the latter phenomenon. Singer/songwriter Daithí Ó hÉignigh is “essentially a drummer” who decided to write and arrange a complex folk album. As a result, these 11 songs feature all sorts of sounds, rhythms and arrangements that I didn’t expect. I listened to this album for far longer than I usually do when writing a review, because it took a long time for me to figure out what was happening.

Because the homogenization of a field doesn’t just affect what musicians write, it affects how listeners hear. People are in love with Babel because it pulls off all the pop-folk moves perfectly; These Things Between… is a difficult listen for someone conditioned to hear music in that way. Even though the signifiers of folk are present (strummed acoustic guitar, pensive moods, emotive voice), what is a gospel choir doing in “Ostia”? “Mo ghrá” is in Gaelic? “Fly to Me” features a calliope-style organ; “Pound” accentuates unusual rhythms. This is a brain-expander, and goodness knows I need it after the musical candy that is Mumford and Sons, Avett Brothers and The Mountain Goats all releasing albums within weeks of each other.

After an eclectic start, the center of the album is a bit more standard. “The Past” incorporates bass guitar and organ drone in familiar patterns (Decemberists!), while “Song to Myself” shows off a wheezing saxophone in a style similar to Bon Iver’s Colin Stetson. By the end of the album, the unusual arrangements have returned: the title track is a heavily rhythmic tune that relies on conga drums, an unrecognizable instrument and Celtic-inspired strings. Still, the closer is solo acoustic track “I Was Hoping You Might…,” which reminded me of Damien Jurado in its starkness.

These Things Between… is perfectly titled, as its songs walk down the line between familiarity and otherness. There are detours to both sides, but overall it exists in a space that will challenge your conventional listening habits. If you’re into something a little outside your (and my) Mumfordy comfort zone, Sfumato should be one place to check out.

Quick Hits: More Than Skies / Nonagon / The Woodrow Wilsons

May 7, 2012

I can’t believe it’s been almost two weeks since I posted. Crazy times. Here’s a bunch of quick hits to clear my slate and get back to lengthy reviews I am such a fan of writing.

The fractured melodies and herky-jerky energy of Good News-era Modest Mouse meet the moody ponderousness of Tom Waits’ work in More Than SkiesI Am Only Above The Ground. The lyrics are far more positive than either party is accustomed to writing, making the album a unique experience of positive-to-wistful lyrics led by a raspy singer and backed by an enthusiastic band that often breaks out into group vocals. Instrumental chops abound (“Introduction,” “The One Who Wanders Is Not Lost”) and the melodies shine (“Life Declines at Twenty-five,” the title track), but it’s the exuberant “We’re Getting Older” that will stick in your mind and heart. Highly recommended for fans of a full-bodied folk sound that’s still raw and real.

Nonagon‘s People Live Everywhere EP offers up technical post-hardcore that’s big on dissonant melodies, tempo changes, odd time signatures, and shouted vocals. The unusual juxtaposition of guitar lines in opener “Vikings” should tip you off that this is loud music to appreciate with your brain as much as your body. You can definitely mosh to it (the dissonant “Fresnel Lens,” the manic “The Swifts”), but it’s the atypical rhythms and melodic ideas in “Fadeout” and the aforementioned “Vikings” that get me. Nonagon’s working at a high level here.

The Woodrow WilsonsDevil Jonah focuses more on mood and arrangement than hummable melodies, making their acoustic amalgam much less of a traditional “folk” album and more of a chamber-pop album. “I Love the Atlantic” is a beautiful tune that experiments with tempo and arrangement for effect, while “Anthropomorphics” is a jubilant tune with a horn chorale in it. Songs like “The Ocean is Rising to Meet You” and “Heat” play with the conventions of songwriting to great effect. Male and female vocals lead the band in turns, only lending more variety to the album. The highlight is the tense, emotive “The Size of My Fist,” which calls up what Andrew Bird might sound like if he had an interest in conveying emotions. On the whole, fans of The Decemberists and old-school Sufjan Stevens will find much to love in The Woodrow Wilsons.

Bison's folk-pop focuses on unique arrangements

December 24, 2011

Bison‘s orchestral folk-pop takes a bit different tack than The Collection, who I’ve gushed over repeatedly. Bison’s debut album Quill uses the seriousness of Fleet Foxes’ grounded sound as a framework, layering strings, bells and more on top. “Iscariot” and “The Woodcutter’s Son” have a darkly pastoral bent that recalls pre-The King is Dead Decemberists. But it’s not all heavy and bleak; the title track and “Switzerland” show off a deft balance of meaningfulness and instrumental levity. The former is especially buoyed by a perky, rumbling tom roll.

Vocalist Benjamin Hardesty has a less unusual but no less malleable tenor voice than Colin Meloy, and that lends considerable enjoyment to these tunes. While his voice is the focus in several tunes, the instrumental and near-choral arrangements take precedence in others. This focus is rare for folk, no matter how much instrumental virtuosity is praised in the related genre of bluegrass; instead of being about the individual performances (as in that genre), Bison’s folk is very concerned with mood through the writing of parts. There are many intros and outros, setting the stage for tunes: this took some getting used to for me, a fan of immediate folk tunes. It’s not bad, just unusual: this is an asset toward their originality, after I got used to it.

But every folk lover will breathe a sigh of contentment at “Autumn Snow,” which starts out with a gentle, poignant, fingerpicked guitar line before adding vocals and strings. It’s a fantastic tune that shows Hardesty’s vocals in full bloom, and showcases the band’s straight-up songwriting skill.

Bison’s debut Quill establishes the band as one to watch in 2012. Their vision is slightly different than most folk bands, and that results in interesting, fun-to-hear tunes. I’m excited to see what Bison will be able to do with some refining and a few more tunes under the belt.

Vitamin D's indie-pop is scattershot, with hits and misses

March 24, 2010

Vitamin-DSome bands seem to have several bands crashing about inside of them. Vitamin-D is one of those bands. There is a power-pop band, a stately indie-pop band, and a goofy indie-pop band all running around in Vitamin-D’s album Bridge. The problem is that they don’t all succeed at the same level.

Let’s get the goofy out of the way first. The least explicable song here is “George Washington Bridge,” which is one of four songs that have the word “bridge” in the title. It plays like a weird Decemberists cast-off, with a group of people singing the words of the title over and over with an accompanying accordion and guitar. It’s not bad at all, but it’s completely out of context for the album. There would have to be significantly more weirdness on this album for me to get behind this track completely. But I certainly could, as I’m pro-accordion, the song has a nice melody, and the overall effect is one of swaying and happiness. There could be more of this and I’d be happy. But there’s really not.

Then they have a couple of electric-fronted power-pop tunes. “Upstaged,” “Findable” and “Astoria Bridge” play out somewhere between the morose musings of Counting Crows and poppy missives of Fountains of Wayne. They are pleasant, but there’s nothing too unique about them. I’d take “Upstaged” over most pop on the radio, but the power-pop still plays second fiddle to the meat of the album, which is the stately indie-pop.

The majority of the album lies firmly in stately indie-pop. The rhythms are precise, the melodies are calm, the arrangements are meticulous, and the mood is morose. Bon Iver would envy the gloom that is crafted in “Trumpet Moment 2,” as the repeated brass chord ushers in a sense of melancholy only augmented by the sparse picking and eventual trumpet solo.  “The Summer Crossing” is a little more upbeat, features strings, and feels somewhat like The Album Leaf, musically. “Bartlett Bridge” features the trumpet again, and has a very calm, pleasing atmosphere.

This bulk of the album is what I prefer to listen to, as it has the most fully developed moods, the best melodies, and the tightest arrangements. The vocals don’t strain or stress, they just fit into the song as they should. It feels quite effortless on tunes like “Bartlett Bridge” and “Beneficial Bridge.” The inclusion of the instrumental track “Hopscotch” is a highlight, as it shows off the songwriting skil of Vitamin D. I would prefer to see more work in this vein, actually, as the arrangement was excellent and the tune was beautiful. Even if it wasn’t exactly pop music, it was gorgeous and made me feel. And that’s what good music should do.

The schizophrenia of the album takes its toll when listened to in full; the album never settles into a real rhythm, dragging the listener through various moods. But when listened to in bits and snippets, it’s very good music. I enjoyed many of the tracks, but as a full album it just doesn’t make much sense. I hope Vitamin D can streamline their sound more effectively next go-round.

Jacob Magers' folk-inspired pop tunes mostly succeed.

December 10, 2009

I often wonder how artists title things. It’s become a little less of a mystery since I started writing my own albums, but I’m still boggled sometimes. Jacob Magers’ EP Pendulums is named after not only the least entertaining song on his EP, but the only one that relies on a gimmick.

See, Jacob Magers’ folk-inspired music is melodic, spacious, and engrossing; from the choir of “ah”s opening up “Point of Reference” to the trumpets on “Shanghai,” this EP is faultlessly entertaining. Except. Except. The title track “Pendulums” uses what sounds like an inverted and backwards loop of “Life in Technicolor” by Coldplay as its basis. It sounds weird, and it doesn’t contribute to the song at all. The song that follows after the goofy gimmick is solid, but it’s tarnished by the spectre of the odd loop. I have no clue why Magers chose to use the weird loop, or why he chose to use it as the title track, because there are wonders to behold elsewhere.

Jacob Magers is a supreme storyteller, and the best moments of this album are the most fully-realized stories. “Overboard and Down” is the last thoughts of a drowning sailor; “Smiling at Strangers” is the tragic tale of a woeful bet. “Shanghai,” the highlight of the EP, is the tale of two separated lovers longing to get back together.

The songwriting in “Shanghai” makes the tale pop with excellence, as Magers eschews stripped down folk antics for a more fully-realized sound, reminescent of Margot and the Nuclear So and Sos or maybe even I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning-era Bright Eyes. There are trumpets, violins,  twinkling electric guitar, bass guitar, and even a drum kit filling out the song. It sounds wonderful. It’s easily the best track here, as Magers sounds the most comfortable within the confines of the song. That confidence makes the melodies glow with a warmth and passion that are hinted at throughout the album. When Magers calls out “No, no, no!” and the violins pick up his sorrow with frantic bowing, it feels like the Decemberists but without the jagged edges.

In short, the best songs here are pop songs full of warmth and good storytelling. Magers’ voice and guitar produce melodies that are simply enjoyable. Other than that very odd track in the middle of the EP, Magers’ Pendulums is quite an exciting and well-realized piece. I hope to hear more from him.

Library Voices create bookish indie-pop

September 9, 2009

What is it that makes pop music such a fitting background for philosophical and hyper-literary lyrics? This question comes up regularly for listeners of The Decemberists, Modest Mouse, Andrew Bird, Sufjan Stevens and the like. And the question has come up again while listening to Library Voices.

This ten-piece pop collective hails from Saskatchewan, Canada. Their Hunting Ghosts and Other Collected Shorts EP stays true to its bookish name, combining pop culture references, narrative structure, philosophical musings, and existential confusion with musical styles from uptempo, guitar-driven pop to ethereal pieces with delicate instrumental textures. Their Myspace says they sound like “drunk kids talking too openly and too honestly.” I’d have to agree, except these drunk kids are hip, have read lots of books and are probably drunk on craft beers and red wine. (After all, they have appeared in The New Yorker.)

The opening track “Step off the Map and Float” begins with some Nintendo-like sounds, a lighthearted group count-off to twelve, and then jumps into an up-tempo pop song whose chorus–“Your existence is a pinprick/On a paper continent/The patron saints all patronize me”–is tinged with just enough resignation and anguish. But, it is ultimately ebullient: “So step off the map and float.” This track is a balanced showing of their sound, which features clean guitar, multi-part vocals, and an array of quirky elements that at the same time both thicken the song and lighten the sound.

“Kundera on the Dance Floor” features a syncopated rhythm section (including a saxophone) and a sort of character vignette of the “golden girl.” She wears a Tom Waits t-shirt, is “piss drunk on red wine and melody,” and quotes Dando and Kafka. Library Voices’ sharp lyrics and the catchy melodies do exactly what pop lyrics and melodies should do: get stuck in your head and make you thankful for it. Oh, and as a consequence of singing the educated lyrics to yourself as you walk down the street, you get to be introspective and consider, among other ironies and tragedies of life, “the unbearable lightness of being.”

Yet at times Library Voices’ literary leanings can come off as too overt. The somewhat underwhelming “Things We Stole From Vonnegut’s Grave” is just as list-like as it sounds. Abstract items of contraband such as “consciousness of the human condition” and “a taste for science fiction” provide the list with some intrigue. Either way, it is impressive and humorous to listen to the band reel off obscure Vonnegut references, and they certainly leave no doubt that they read a lot of the man’s works. Musically it is one of their more unusual pieces in that its harmonic structure lies outside of the realm of traditional pop. It is only striking in contrast to their other songs. The factual lyrics are impersonal at worst, but the song works within the overall aesthetic of Library Voices in that themes often found in Vonnegut stories regularly show up in the band’s original lyrics. For instance, in “Love in the Age of Absurdity,” the band takes a somewhat prophetic tack, questioning the seeming normality of pop culture givens such as social networking and reality television and stirring the listener to examine his or her place.

“Hunting Ghosts” and “The Lonely Projectionist” are easily the most in keeping with the title of the EP. Both are extensive narratives, and “Hunting Ghosts” is unique in that it features soft, female lead vocals. This quiet, ethereal song contains tighter backing harmonies, more reverb, and a deftly-written string section to create the more intimate texture of this song. The narrative-confessional lyrics add to such a texture. Instrumentally, “The Lonely Projectionist” shares similarities with the other pieces, such as an extensive use of organs and synths, with the bass and drums driving the song forward. However, this song is their best-arranged piece; the instrumental elements of the song move seamlessly together through a larger range of dynamics and moods. About two-thirds of the way through the song they take a chance on a bridge that veers away from the earlier part of the song, and it is a most pleasant surprise. The lyrics narrate two parallel existences of loneliness, and this more oblique approach to existential questions sounds less cathartic.

Library Voices pull off their sound and the pop collective aesthetic with just the right amount of ease. It isn’t polished, but it isn’t chaotic, and doesn’t seem forced. Hunting Ghosts and Other Collected Shorts EP makes me eager for a full-length album. –Max Thorn

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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