Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

The 21st Century’s wide-eyed, bohemian indie-pop enchants

June 7, 2012

I love it when a specific scene has an identifiable sound. Sometimes I don’t like the specific sound that is happening, but I love the idea that people kicking around ideas among themselves over a long period of time will come up with iterations, similarities and variations that push toward the sum. And there almost always is a sum, even if it’s something seemingly unquantifiable like an artistic movement: the pinnacle of a form does not appear on the first try, by anyone. Rockin’ the Suburbs was nowhere near the first piano-pop album, nor Ben Folds’ first rodeo; it just happens to have assimilated all the ideas that had been kicking about in a particularly excellent way.

All that to say this: the lush orchestrations, wide-eyed lyrics, group vocals and bohemian charm make The City by The 21st Century sound very much like a Pacific Northwest indie pop band (The Morning Benders/Pop Etc, Grizzly Bear, Local Natives – although they’re from LA). And instead of that being a bad thing, it’s a great thing. “We Are Waiters” has familiar elements like plunking piano and big group vocals, but they invite the listener in so the band can drop the intoxicating chorus. I had the chorus on loop in my mind for days after I heard it the first time, and that’s incredibly rare for a guy who listens to music all day.

The band makes its living on gleeful tunes that incorporate guitar noodling, horns, organ solos and a well-developed sense of space. These songs may have a lot going on, but they’re not crowded: the production allows for everything to breathe. “The Good Things (Act I and II)” is the best example of this, as the band throws the kitchen sink at the tune and it still doesn’t feel as heavy as a power-pop trio with a huge guitar riff. “A Funeral March (The State of Our Parade)” is another melodic highlight, filled out with lyrics about the meaning of life (no, for real). “The Parisian Translation” gets its Decemberists on in the melodic structures, but not so much that it feels like a rip-off. It’s just incredibly fun. (And yes, there’s French spoken in the song!)

So where does the line draw between inhabiting a sound and retreading a sound? I think the difference lies in each person’s desire for the genre, just like I mentioned yesterday: The 21st Century’s game is the same as Friends of Mine. (This style of indie-pop is just as divisive as country, and I would guess mostly for the same reasons: two parts backlash to its related culture, one part resistance to the idiosyncrasies of the sound). The 21st Century takes an established sound and builds something inside it; those with a low threshold for the genre’s quirks won’t get this and feel that it’s just some more of that stuff, while those who love the genre will enjoy the new entrant into the field.

Given that ideas ruminate and kick around, the entry of another band into the field allows for another possible group who could come up with the definitive statement (or statements!) for this genre. If you’re a fan of the type of music that The Morning Benders purveyed on Big Echo, this one’s going to make you sit up and take notice.

Quick Hits: Friends of Mine

June 6, 2012

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: no one likes everything musically. Show me someone who loves klezmer, Kreayshawn, Liturgy, Neutral Milk Hotel, soca, Tears for Fears and “Call Me Maybe,” and then maybe we’ll talk. I know that I’m not such a big fan of rap, but I’m a huge fan of folk/alt-country. As a result, my tolerance for the excesses of the folk/alt-country genre (playing fast and loose with the concept of vocal tone, thanks to Bob Dylan and Neil Young) is higher than most, while my tolerance for the excesses of other genres is low. That’s just the way it is.

St. Anthony of Shipwrecks EP by Friends of Mine will charm fans of folk/alt-country, but it won’t convert non-fans to the genre: the vocals privilege passion over tone, the snare shuffles like you might expect, and the bass goes up and down in a very country way. You’ve heard these parts before, but they rattle and scuffle together in endearing ways throughout the EP. The melodies that the band puts together stick in my head, especially in the winking “Pop Song (Be My Girlfriend).” The band does occasionally throw in a garage-rock/surf-rock edge (“Dear John Proctor,” “Girls”), and it’s in the latter track that the worst vocal tone excesses nearly derail the song at the climax of its six-and-a-half-minute length.

But the misstep is redeemed by closer “Coffee House,” a folky strummer with killer melodies and harmonies. Again, there’s nothing groundbreaking in the tune, but it just stays up there in my mind. Once the harmonica comes in, the tune is reminiscent of Two Gallants’ best work. Sometimes you don’t need to be innovative to be brilliant; you just need to be well-versed. Friends of Mine’s St. Anthony of Shipwrecks sounds incredibly knowledgeable about their subject. Here’s to tradition, and great things within it. I look forward to what the band turns out next.

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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