Louis Landry‘s JJ vs. the Digital Whaleis, in a word, ambitious. The album re-situates the story of Jonah from “its roots in Christian, Jewish and Islamic culture” and comments on the “constant barrage of electronics, media, and technology which surround us all” by interpreting all of that as the whale. (The press also mentions Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi and Pink Floyd’s Animals as RIYLs.) So right off the bat, there’s points for conceptual boldness from this corner. The album that results is a largely major-key indie-rock festival that incorporates an incredible amount of sounds and instruments.
By pointing this out as a rock opera, it leaves the standard bounds of reception: JJ vs. The Digital Whale is held together by a repeated motif, the overarching story, and a spirit of adventure instead of any dedication to a stable genre. “Ride the Whale” has some Prince-ian funk going on; “Nothing No One Nowhere Blues” is a grumbling, stomping delta blues; “Ismi Azum” is a near-ambient instrumental rumination that fuses acoustic and electronic; “YOU’VE GOT eWHALE” is a marching, instrumental theatrical reminiscent of (yep!) Yoshimi. It wouldn’t be complete without a sea shanty, so “Ribs and Terrors” gives us a duet between a traditional accordion and a wiry synth before Landry’s voice comes in.
The remarkable thing about JJ is that even though the album has wide-ranging interests, the album never goes awry. Landry is able to corral all the sounds into the sonic framework he’s developed. Now, it’s weird, but it’s a rock opera about a modern re-telling of an ancient tale as understood by our current electronic issues. This never had a small horizon. By the time “Sunbound” rolls around, a six-minute slow-building acoustic-based indie-rock tune with a backing choir, nothing seems out of place at all. If you’ve got an adventurous streak and appreciate musicians with big ideas, then Louis Landry’s JJ vs. the Digital Whale will be right up your alley.
Kris Orlowski references Jonah as well in “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” the opener on The Gershwin Sessions Vol. 1. After that Porgy and Bess tune, folkie-turned-indie-pop/indie-rock musician Orlowski focuses his attention on Gershwin’s love songs in this loving tribute to the early 1900s songwriter best known for Rhapsody in Blue.
The six-song collection treats these tunes with piety, largely retaining their form, structure and vibe (particularly in the strings). The update lies in Orlowski’s voice and delivery, as well as the inclusion of guitar in the largely piano-driven originals. Orlowski’s confident tenor gives a warm sheen to these tunes, and the guitar contributes a modern vibe that pushes against the romantic strings in a productive tension. Those smart touches combine with the rest of the arrangements to create tunes that are both clever and honest: the material never strays too far from the source, but these songs feel differentiated enough to justify their existence. The biggest difference comes in closer “Things Are Looking Up,” which features a much sparser arrangement than the rest. The subtle motion of a gentle electric guitar strum and the engineering of the bass push this in a more modern pop direction, which is just lovely. Elsewhere, “Love Walked In” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It” are particularly neat. If you’re a fan of the old and the new, Orlowski has implicitly promised more than one collection of this work–get excited.
Carly Comando‘s Dreamlifehas two settings: slow and fast. The instrumental pianist best known for the deeply moving “Everyday” offers tunes that have rushes of single-note runs, rapid patterning, and arpeggiation (“Daydream,” “Dragonfly”) alongside those that go for the more stately emotions (“Procession,” “Birthday”).
The former are charged with excitement and passion, as they sound like running, leaping, and playing. The more solemn tunes are less immediate, as they are less similar to pop songs and more like classical compositions. The best side of her work comes out when both the gravitas and the enthusiasm come out at once, as in the middle of “Daydream” and the entirety of “Dusk.” Comando augments fluttering synth patterns with a heavy left hand on the bass piano keys to create a unique tension. The song builds and flows with the two vibes working together to create something larger than both. It’s in that melding that Carly Comando’s unique strengths as a composer are shown. This is beautiful, evocative, powerful music–you’ll be hearing this in places you don’t expect for years to come, so jump on it now and have the surge of recognition at movie trailers and advertisements of the future.
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.
Our disposable culture doesn’t have much use for slow-growing albums. This is a profound sadness, as albums that sink in over repeated listens often offer the highest dividends. Alston David’s self-titled album of eclectic, vintage pop is one of such releases.
This review almost didn’t make it to the site; David’s e-mail to me bounced around in various folders before finally settling in the “To Review” section. I didn’t exactly know what to make of it: The thirteen songs borrow from both the light piano-pop of ELO and the ominous, psychedelic mishmash of the Flaming Lips’ Embryonic. “Photograph (Angels/Devils)” pulls from both at the same time.
But as difficult as it is to wrap my head around the contrasting aspects of Alston David’s work, I kept coming back to the songs. “When California Falls Right Into the Ocean” has a haunting melody doubled by the vocal and piano, a ragged sense of rhythm, and lush atmosphere. Opener “Spottedcrow Flies” foregrounds the arch feel of the album via a synth-heavy march. The forlorn “Tornado” features a cold-yet-elegant piano and strings. “If It’s All In My Head” is what Keane’s nightmares sound like. These are pop songs, but not like any you’ve heard recently.
The tunes are hard to place in the constraints of genre; this may be because I’ve not been exposed to a great deal of this type of music, or because their cross-genre sound takes a while to get used to. I do know, however, that the melodies keep running in my head, no matter how difficult it is for me to cite RIYL bands or even specific and concrete reasons I like the album as much as I do.
I’m sure this has been a relatively unexciting read, and I apologize to everyone involved. But Alston David’s self-titled album is engaging because it’s enigmatic, and then enigmatic because it’s engaging. That loop makes for great listening, but not necessarily good writing. Just go listen to it – it’s worth your time, especially if you give it a full listen (and then think about it for a while).
Citizen 5, out of Norman, OK, is a band of many roots, musically and geographically. Musically, they range from pop country of the lead singer Jimmilea Manley to the Latin influences of keyboardist Ricardo Sasaki to the heavy rock of guitarist Scott Sunderman to the indie influences of bassist Jason Long.
They come from many places, from Bolivia to Mexico to just local homegrown Oklahomans. Citizen 5 is unique in that they are a globalized band, which ties into their name, connected with the fact that they are five citizens of the world. This is where they are talented, and even the title of the album plays on the interconnection of everyone.
Definitely Citizen 5’s melding of genres and styles helps make them unique an indie market where being unique is a prerequisite for success. The intro and outro, for example, are Latin-influenced,with a talented trumpeter from the premier mariachi band in Oklahoma playing a Latin dirge. New wave influences can be heard in much of the music, notably in “Make it Real,” where singer Jimmilea Manley’s strong and soaring vocals add a womanly, southern twang, strangely complimenting the indie and psychedelic influences already at play. Add to that their retro eighties-like chord progressions, you’d think these guys would be going overboard. But the band manages to make solid pop songs that tie all these influences together without really jumping off the experimental cliff.
I had the chance to sit down keyboardist and producer Ricardo Sasaki, who said Citizen 5 has been influenced by acts ranging from Led Zeppelin to David Bowie to Oklahoma’s greatest recent psychedelic success story, the Flaming Lips. Produced by very indie label Ares Recording (which has only been in business for about three weeks), right next door to a Starlight Mints-owned Opolis, a live act club, Citizen 5 definitely has the indie cred to make a footprint on the music world outside the local scene.
But more important than the connections that Sasaki has from his eighteen years of producing and world tromping is just the talent I heard when listening to Circles. Sometimes its buried, but I can still hear it – this is a band that has yet to realize its potential. Things I was impressed with include the way the band manages to craft very familiar lyrics and chord progressions without sounding cliché. Perhaps the influence of all the aforementioned backgrounds of the members of Citizen 5 keep things fresh, like a mango from South America or a homegrown tomato from an Oklahoma backyard.
Sasaki himself said that their next LP, currently untitled and due for release in a few months, is better than the first. I am eagerly awaiting that release, hoping that in it that the band’s voice rings stronger than the first. If I had to guess, I would say the band’s voice can be found from the melding of their different backgrounds, musical and geographical. I think that if they just somehow amplified all these influences and dared to experiment a little more, they could be scary good.
But for what it’s worth, I recommend Citizen 5 and Circles heartily. It’s a fun indie/retro listen.
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.