The acoustic indie-pop of Living Decent‘s Do What Makes You BraveEPshows a different side of the band, which released their self-titled pop-punk EP in July 2015. Brave relies on the singer/songwriter background of Vic Alvarez, featuring his voice against an acoustic guitar and minimal arrangement around that. The minimalism ranges from nothing but voice and guitar in “Minus 10” to the bass and tambourine of the perky (but still not pop-punk perky) “Crystal Palace” and the crescendoing drums and bass of “Moving the Sun.” The four songs here each maintain a balance between punchy and melancholy–it’s unsurprising that they list “emo” as one of their tags. They could tour with Football, Etc. as part of the emo revival, making music that draws off emo’s forefather influences but sounds modern and relateable.
The standout is closer “I Could Not Be Here,” the most realized of the tunes here: Alvarez’s breathy, earnest tenor is surrounded by warm keys and gentle percussion to create a tune that almost sounds like a Plans-era Death Cab for Cutie song. Living Decent has songwriting chops that they’ve now showed off in two different realms very quickly. They’re an exciting outfit to watch for in 2016.
Distant Cousins’ self-titled EP finds a way to triangulate contemplative folk, folk-pop, and Imagine Dragons-style radio pop in a fun, catchy product. Opener “Taste of Tomorrow” combines all three of their elements in an enthusiastic, sax-blasted tune that reminds me of Magic Giant’s work. “Your Story” is a straight-up-and-down folk pop tune that ropes in female vocalist Jessie Payo for the back-and-forth elements. Closer “For a Moment” is a pristine folk tune buoyed by multiple-part harmonies that sticks out for its beauty. The rest of the tracks on the six-song EP turn up the pop volume and get fun–if you’re into that style of music, Distant Cousins are right on that wavelength. Their debut EP shows off that they can write a snappy tune, and there are flashes of beauty in there too. I’m interested to see where they go next.
The four songs of Marc Maynon‘s Watch Pot have thoroughly ingested British Invasion songcraft but don’t just spit that back out. Instead, Maynon’s songwriting has a bit of a power-pop cast to it at times (“Something to Live For”) and a piano-pop flair at other times (“Sensation,” “Vintage Lens”). Maynon’s high-pitched tenor is deployed nicely throughout the EP; in “Sensation” and “Vintage Lens” his vocals pair especially well with the bright piano tone. Even though he has solid pop bonafides, this isn’t all upbeat major-key work; Maynon has a solid control of mid-tempo and minor-key work. Add in the thoughtful arrangement touches throughout, from strings to synths to trumpet, and you’ve got a solid EP of pop songwriting. Watch Pot is a good slice of sound for fans of formal pop songwriting.
Sundaug‘s Nocturnality is a full album of instrumental compositions that primarily revolve around a fingerpicked acoustic guitar. Each of the 14 tracks is remarkably relaxing, from the gently grooving opener “Pyramid” to the moody closer “Chasing Angels.” The album is strongly cohesive, and you can listen to the album as one long tune if you wish. (It’s particularly good for setting on in an afternoon where you don’t have much to do and just want to chill–I can vouch). Some highlights that stick out (but only ever so slightly–it’s all really good) are “When Solitude Becomes Isolation,” a cascading tune that sounds more contemplative and positive than the title suggests, and “The Submersion,” which pairs pad synths with interesting guitar runs. (Some might not be thrilled with the occasional overture toward new age music, but I don’t think it diminishes the overall impact of the release.) If you’re interested in relaxing guitar-centric music, you should check out Sundaug’s Nocturnality.
The Bellfuries‘ Workingman’s Bellfuries is a sonic upgrade on retro styles. The 11 tunes of this record apply hi-fi, modern production techniques to the sounds of Roy Orbison pop (“Beaumont Blues”) and early ’60s British Invasion rock–complete with a cover of a 1964 Beatles B-side (“She’s a Woman”). It avoids the retro-rock tribute trap through an assured grasp of the elements necessary in this type of songwriting, impressive arrangements, and immediately catchy melodies.
By the end of the first time that my wife and I heard “Why Do You Haunt Me,” we were both singing along almost unconsciously–the song’s structure is so natural, so deeply dedicated to the ’50s-rock palette that it passed the credibility threshold almost instantaneously. Joey Simeone’s wide singing range makes the vocals a central point in the sound: they’re passionate but still carefully controlled, dramatic without being sloppy. The fact that he can pull off the difficult vocal jumps iconic in this sound goes one more step toward showing why The Bellfuries are more than copycats or fetishists–these are musicians who’ve adopted a style and are pushing it forward. Their polished, structured, rewarding arrangements seal the deal. If you’re looking for some distinctly unique pop/rock, try out Workingman’s Bellfuries.
On the opposite side of the rock spectrum, Kyle & the Pity Party play early ’00s emo-rock on their EP Everything’s Bad. However, they’re just as dedicated as The Bellfuries to their genre proposition: they namecheck iconic emo band Brand New in “Young.” It’s an important reference, as a namecheck to Taking Back Sunday or Thursday would belie a different set of sonic principles. Kyle McDonough and co. play rock that has matured out of some punk brashness–while these minor key songs can get noisy, they have an atmospheric gravitas imported by the melodic commitment, the dense arrangements and the Doors-esque vocals.
McDonough’s vocals aren’t quite as low as Morrison’s, but the same sort of “brooding persona presiding over the rock proceedings” vibe prevails. His performances are attention-grabbing in the best sort of way. It’s a tribute to the vocal quality that he overshadows the instrumentals to a degree: the band’s careful attention to maintaining energy while sticking in a mid-tempo emo-rock style results in strong songwriting. From the piano that grounds opener “Spill It All” to the bass-heavy rock of “He Was / She Was” to the casio-led closer “He’ll Never Love You,” the band keeps things diverse but recognizably consistent on the six-song EP.
It’s their decision to keep melody central to their guitars and vocals (no screaming here) that sets them apart from their noisier brethren, but they haven’t gotten so quiet as to move into twinkly post-emo. Instead, they throw down their tunes in a melodic indie-rock sort of vein that probably wouldn’t get lumped in with the emo revival as a tag (although they could easily tour with bands like Football, Etc. or others). If you still listen to Deja Entendu, you should check out Kyle and the Pity Party.
While Underlined Passages’ self-titled release is a debut, my roots with the band go back deeper. The two principal band members were formerly in The Seldon Plan, a Baltimore indie-rock band that I started reviewing in 2006. After some time off, Michael Nestor and Frank Corl have regrouped as Underlined Passages. Their debut release is on Mint 400 Records (a connection I helped make), and their rainy-day indie-rock fits perfectly with other M400 bands like the Maravines and the Sink Tapes.
The nine songs of Underlined Passages sport various amounts of energy, but each have some sense of melancholy about them. Even when the drums are thrashing away and the guitars are chiming wildly on “Magic, Logic, Life,” Nestor’s vocals are bereft of aggression. The guitar arpeggios and slow pace of “It’s Ok” are more stereotypically melancholy, with emotively-driven lyrics, mournful melodies, and a warm sense of nostalgia/affection. There’s a lot of emotion in these songs, but it never goes over-the-top; like so much on this album, it just fits.
Considering the emotive push, Underlined Passages could definitely hang with the emo revival bands: the one-two punch of opener “Perspective” and “Every Night” are right there with Football, Etc. in aesthetic similarity. But for the most part, Underlined Passages doesn’t have the brash, punchy aspect that many emo bands inherit from their punk roots. These are earnest, passionate, mid-tempo songs for grey days. You don’t have to look farther than the swirling “Sonata” and the intimate “Like 2009” to get where Nestor and Corl are coming from.
Underlined Passages is an excellent companion on a rainy day. The melancholy arrangements, the hooky melodies, and nostalgic overall mood invite you to curl up under a blanket and watch the rain come down. If you’re looking for some moody, earnest indie-rock today, look no farther.
The outfit can play the pop game with great aplomb, as the hooky riffs and consistent kick drum of standout single “Number One” and “The Winning Side” attest. However, they can also get down into some dirty, dirty blues riffs (“Two Guns,” “Keys to the Kingdom”) and low-slung, gritty rock (“Blacked Out Windows”). When they bring their pop chops to bear on those muddy, murky influences, things get seriously interesting: the title track grooves hard but also has that warm glow throughout which keeps things in the pop realm.
It’s tough to keep things in the “top down, wind-in-my-hair” mode when the lyrics are so seething with bitterness towards ruined economies at the hands of the rich & powerful, but they manage the balance. From the down-and-out vignettes of opener “Number One” to the religious imagery of “Let the Love Go Down” to the apocalyptic sketch of acoustic closer “Plow Song,” every song is an economic protest in one way or another. (I don’t usually put a lot of stock in album titles, but this one is perfectly named.) If you wish that The Black Keys had gotten grittier instead of going stadium-rock on us, The Sideshow Tragedy will perk you up. If you’re into protest music that can get your adrenaline pumping, you’ll be all over this, too.
Second-wave/late ’90s-early ’00s emo can occasionally (rightly) be associated with uncharitable, uninviting navel-gazing, but Football, Etc.‘s Disappear EP transcends the worst of the stigma by keeping a dreamy pop sensibility firmly in view.
The four-song set shows off the hallmarks of the genre–gauzy guitars, twinkly melodies, drums reminiscent of punk, tidy arrangements, small number of musicians–without lapsing into homage or parody. The fact that you can hum along with “Sunday” points to an important aspect of their pop-music ethos; the fact that the EP opens with Lindsay Minton’s voice on “Sunday” points even more strongly in that direction.
Yes, there are some chilled-out tunes that focus more squarely on the lyrics, which some may not like. But the melodies and the mood make it very worth it for me. If you’re into dream-pop or the emo revival, sign up with Football, Etc.
Laura Joy‘s Between Our Words is a light, airy, sun-dappled collection of acoustic songs. Joy takes a singer/songwriter’s introspective approach to lyrics, but the bouncy bass of “Takes a While” and cheery organ of “Phoenix” keep things from feeling too cloistered. Those two songs in particular should be played outside on a walk in the park during a mid-’70s cloudless day. “Courting Disaster” is an acoustic pop tune that is potentially the perkiest cut ever to have “disaster” in the title.
Joy’s unaffected, straightforward voice helps create the unassuming air as well: throughout the five songs, Joy sounds down-to-earth and approachable due to a pleasant eschewing of vocal theatrics. Even when things do get a little more dramatic in the fingerpicked title track and troubadour-esque “Moving On,” Joy still situates herself in vocal and instrumental arrangements that don’t go for huge sweeps and maximum catharsis. Instead, she writes comfortable, relatable, small songs. It’s a refreshing turn to hear things not need to be pushed to their brim. Laura Joy’s Between Our Words is a quiet, light EP that makes an outsized mark for its weight.
Independent Clauses is pretty much your Hoodie Allen clearing house. Thankfully, this new Hoodie video is much less confusing than that other one that one time. This time he just looks supremely uncomfortable at a raging house party cause he can’t get to the prettiest girl in the room. I think we have all felt this pain before. But then… well, just watch the vid. It’s cool, and the song is smooth as well. His mixtape Leap Year drops tomorrow. And yes, there will be a review.
This is also pretty much your Josh Caress fanblog, so this gorgeous live session rendering of “Follow the Firelight” is a must.
The world gets bigger and smaller when you’re deep into a subject: Even though Football, etc.‘s tour video doesn’t have the band It’s a King Thing in it (as far as I can tell), the phrase appears twice on a wall (big!). Also, they go through Oklahoma City, which until recently was my stomping grounds (small!).
Some bands hate being pigeonholed. Some bands invite it. Football, etc. says straight-up in its press materials that it plays late ’90s emo. The info is sort of unimportant, because they make it clear from seconds into the first tune that this is Mineral, Promise Ring and American Football territory. They love the sound, so they’re making more of it. Nothing wrong with that at all.
So, there’s your first barrier: do you like late ’90s emo? Are you down with the prettier side of guitar-based rock? If yes, continue. If no, do not.
The second barrier: Is Football, etc. good?
The band certainly has a lot going for it. They have a strong female vocalist who fits in well to the sound. They write solid songs that fit neatly within the constraints of the genre. They reference Lambeau Field in a song title, which makes me giddy. The three musicians all know their stuff, chops and pedals included. This sounds right.
As to innovation? Closing track “Mouthguard” features some excellent, quick-paced guitar work that held my attention tighter than anything else on the album. Unfortunately, “Mouthguard” is only 1:24. The rest of the tunes will be beloved by those who miss the days when bookish dudes played wistful rock and ruled the open road, but could shoot over the heads and/or under the radar of those unfamiliar with the genre.
Bonus: each of the ten tracks on “The Draft” is named after a football term (“Safety,” “Incomplete,” “Sideline,” “Hail Mary,” etc.). It also serves as a mild subversive tactic in showing how much the English language has been changed by sports phrases, as each of these terms (except my beloved “Lambeau”) has a double entendre to an event or emotional state. Super-cool.
Football, Etc.’s “The Draft” is a good album that will thrill fans of the genre. The songs are strong enough that they may be able to bring new fans into the fold, if people haven’t heard it. It has been almost ten years since people were rockin’ this thing. I certainly enjoy “The Draft.” I hope other people do as well. You can hear a preview here.
And if you’re in Norman for Norman Music Fest, you should check their set at Opolis at 6 p.m. Friday, April 29. I will be there. I am excited about it.
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.