There’s a wide diversity of sounds you can make with an acoustic guitar and voice; being able to sing Missippi blues doesn’t ensure that you can play Irish folk tunes. Some people work to become a master at one style, while others can absorb the core elements of a variety of sounds.
Joe Kaplow is the latter, as his sound is grounded in troubadour folk with influences from a variety of other acoustic genres. His self-titled debut EP showcases a singer/songwriter with a huge amount of promise, as his songwriting and distinctive voice offer great rewards to the listener.
“Bookshop Blues” opens the release with a fast, strummed folk tune accompanied by his own foot stomping. Kaplow’s insistent, urgent tenor dances over a tune that sounds perfect for busking: an earnest, upbeat tune that balances lyrical introspection and smile-inducing melodies and chords. He follows it up with the harmonica-and-swift-fingerpicking tune “How Old is My Soul,” which evokes the raw, pure sound of The Freewheeling Bob Dylan. It stays out of tribute range due to (again) the swooping vocals, which flip from tender to insistent on a dime. This ability to control his delivery calls to mind a less-abrasive Kristian Mattson of The Tallest Man on Earth, especially in the “oh-oh” conclusion of the tune.
Kaplow can unhinge his voice, too–both “It’s Me Girl” and “When I Open Up at Last” allow Kaplow to let it all air out. The banjo-led blues of “It’s Me Girl” sees him scrubbing grit and wail into his delivery to fit the mood of the tune, while “When I Open Up at Last” contains Damien Rice-style howls. “Give My Eyes” provides a respite between the two songs, a delicate pastoral tune that reminds me of a cross between Irish folk tunes and Justin Townes Earle’s American sounds. The addition of a female voice turns this duet into a highlight of the already-strong EP.
There’s a lot going on in this self-titled EP, but it all hangs together because of the bright, mid-fi production vibe. This is clearly a man and his guitar (on most tracks), as the occasional ambient room noise, gentle tape hiss and sound of foot taps show. But Kaplow’s not reveling in the tracks’ smallness–this feels like an earnest document of work, not a bid to participate in the bedroom-folk scene. (“When I Open Up at Last” is about as far from whisper-folk as it gets.) There’s no intentional obscuring, no reverb, no distance placed between the listener and the song. These songs are immediate–they grabbed me on first listen, and they still grab me ten listens on. That’s a credit both to the songs and the way they’re recorded.
Kaplow’s self-titled EP is an energizing listen. Whether it’s a slow or fast song I’m listening to, the music is exciting. Kaplow’s well-controlled voice is employed in a diversity of styles, making for a sprightly, fast-paced 20 minutes. It’s tough to pick out highlight tracks, because each has its own charms; I’m personally partial to “How Old is My Soul” and “Give My Eyes,” but someone who likes darker, dramatic music more than I could find “When I Open Up at Last” or “It’s Me Girl” to be their highlight. It’s a rare artist who can make memorable tunes in diverse idioms, and that bodes well for Joe Kaplow. I can’t wait to see how his next releases develop. Highly recommended.
Their Planes Will Block Out the Sun makes serious music, as I’ve noted before. Their most recent EP Brasiladds to their oeuvre, as “Cut and Run” features more of the interlocking, calculated style of rock. The moods shift more easily than in their previous work, calling up comparisons to a less-bombastic The Walkmen. “Brasil” is a tense and quiet tune, reminiscent of the paranoia-filled moods invoked by OK Computer. But it’s the band-title song “Their Planes” that makes the deepest impact, as the members give in to their melodic tendencies and lets some emotions spill out. The mournful vocal line of “Their planes … will block out the sun/everything will be alright” over warm bass, trilling treble guitar, and snare clicking creates a song that I can’t get out of my head. They’re definitely a group to watch. Fans of The National and the aforementioned bands should give this a spin.
One of the reasons I love working with Independent Clauses is that I like seeing things improve. Tracking a band from its very beginnings to success is a gratifying process, especially when I can hear bands improving on things I (and others) have pointed out in previous releases.
This is probably why The Ridges‘ self-titled EP is a bit baffling to me: there’s almost nothing I can recommend. The band has appeared fully-formed. The members have their orchestral folk rock down. People are going to like this or hate this not because it has to grow, but because people just do that with bands.
The EP fits the formula of what a great short-player should be almost to a T. There’s an establishment of the sound (“The Insomniac’s Song”), complete with pensive string intro. “Overboard” tweaks the formula by introducing sea shanty elements. “Not a Ghost” is their “single” – it’s an easily memorable, jaunty, interesting song with a good melody.
“Invented Love” is almost a perfect example of a third act turn, to prove the band isn’t a one-trick pony: it’s upbeat and enthusiastic without abandoning the core sound. “War Bonds” brings the sound back home to the beginnings with a killer closer. In short, they tick off everything I want to hear in an album/EP except a pensive acoustic track.
So as an Independent Clauses review, this is pretty unusual: I have no suggestions, really. It’s just plain good. I’d like to hear more of this, especially as their melodic strengths are honed to a fine point. As a statement of what this band can do, The Ridges’ EP is one of the strongest and most assured debut I’ve heard all year. Now they just need to dig world-conquering songs out of the vein they’ve already started to mine.
Two of my all-time faves are Bloc Party and LCD Soundsystem. Both are currently not in existence (although BP is supposedly coming back!), which is a depressing state of affairs. But Teleprompter made my day as soon as I pulled up their self-titled EP, as the band sounds almost exactly like Silent Alarm-era Bloc Party. And I love them for it.
When I say exactly, I mean down to the guitar tone. The vocals are higher in pitch than Kele Okereke’s, but other than that, these songs could be outtakes from BP’s masterful debut. Again, this is nothing but a compliment: the reason these could be outtakes is because the songs are the same quality as the A-sides these are aping. And if you cry foul, I dare you to listen and discredit. These songs are legit.
From the guitar storm at the end of “Dinobot” to the herky-jerky riffs and dance-rock drums of “Banshee” to the chiming melodic patterns of “Lung-Tied,” these songs evoke all the best parts of early ’00s indie-rock. But then there’s a hard right midway through “Lung-tied” and into “Lambda”; the band starts showing off its post-hardcore elements as opposed to its post-punk forebears. MeWithoutYou fans, eat your heart out: the vocalist starts hollering like Aaron Weiss, and the band drops into a groove that wouldn’t be out of place on Catch For Us the Foxes. Did I mention that one of the first bands that got me into serious music was MeWithoutYou?
Is Teleprompter’s self-titled EP stuff you’ve heard before? Yes. But it’s stuff that you can’t get anymore; MeWithoutYou and Bloc Party have long since shed these personas. Teleprompter shows a lot of promise to grow into something fantastic; they’re definitely on my top newcomers of the year based on the strength of this five-song EP (There’s a clubtastic remix of an old tune tacked on the end; it’s fun but not indicative of their future).
And if they don’t change at all? I’ll still love ’em.
In late 2004/early 2005, I bought a copy of Scales of Motion‘s self-titled EP. I admired them as elder statesmen in the Tulsa scene; as a high-school kid in my first band, I was awestruck that high-quality indie-rock existed in my hometown.
Jump forward to mid-2011, and Scales of Motion is still at it. If they members were elder statesmen then, they’re Methuselahs now. Yet, not much has changed: 2004’s Scales of Motion and 2011’s Nocturnes feature the same three guys: Chris Skillern (bass/vocals), Kevin Skillern (Guitar/bgvs) and Craig Maricle (drums). The band used the same studio for both sessions (Valcour Sound, in which I have recorded twice). Their 2011 wiry, post-punk-influenced indie-rock songs are not drastically different than their 2004 tunes.
But there is some variation. Nocturnes shows the band leaning toward the more pop-oriented side of its sound: slow-paced opener “Darkness” hangs on the vocal performance instead of the instrumentals. The band is content to set a mood than pummel the listener with riffs, as there are less breakdowns and gritty guitar sections than I expected to hear on Nocturnes.
Chris Skillern has always propelled the sound with his bass work; his angular, forceful riffs play the role of bass and rhythm guitar. Kevin Skillern contributes melodic, single-note runs and riffs over that work. That’s still the case for the majority of the album, but “Darkness” shows that they’ve grown in their confidence enough to not rely entirely on their tried-and-true formula. And while following track “Still We Sing” definitely is a classic Chris Skillern bass riff, the vocal melodies are just as important to the mood.
I noted in my quick overview that their post-punk influences add some edges to their pop songs, and their pop side knocks some of the edges off their post-punk work . “Still We Sing” is the former, but third track “Winter Heart” is very clearly the latter.
For my money, I enjoy the “Winter Heart” style most. Skillern’s high voice sounds best when it’s matched with some tough indie-rock to ground it — without a tether, Scales starts to sound like just another indie-pop band, and that’s not what they are at all. Chris Skillern even drops in a MeWithoutYou-esque spoken-word section, which just amps up the intensity even more. It’s a highlight of the album, and an example of what makes them special.
The bass, guitar and vocals lock into the inspired drum work on the rhythmic “Holier Mysteries.” It’s hard to explain how powerful Craig Maricle is when he’s drumming, but he’s one of the most intense skinsmen I’ve ever witnessed. He makes “Holier Mysteries” into the powerhouse it is. The rawness of the performance helps draw comparisons to The Felix Culpa, which, if you’ve read me gush about TFC, you know is high praise.
The rest of the album splits its time between nice pop tunes and tough indie-rock. On one side, “Hope” includes a harmonica and “My Beloved” sounds like what you think it might; the other, “A Better Dream” shows Kevin Skillern mashing out chords.
But the two sounds aren’t completely disparate; the mood overall is cohesive, and the album definitely feels of one piece. The lyrics also help the unity of the disc, being predominantly concerned with the day-to-day workings of the Christian life.
“Winter Heart,” “Holier Mysteries” and “A Better Dream” are some of the most satisfying rock tunes I’ve heard yet this year. The rest of the album, while not as arresting, is good. If old-school Appleseed Cast ate Death Cab for Cutie, it might sound something like this. Also, the album artwork (not just the cover, but the whole CD package) is gorgeous, and it has my vote for art of the year so far.
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.