MD Woods‘ Young and Vain, Vol. 2 may describe the lifestyles of characters with the titular qualities, but it approaches the studies from a world-weary perspective instead of an impetuous one. The alt-country band, led by the whiskey-soaked voice of Nicholas Moore, comes off desperate and ragged in its moods, like Damien Rice on the alt-country frontier. It should be noted that these are strictly compliments: tunes like “Vomit” make being emotionally wracked seem like a noble idea, if not a desirable one. The melodies are compelling, the lyrics are tight, and the song styles are varied–there’s definitely a lot going on despite the general timbre of the lyrics.
The arrangements compliment the emotional damage by being surprisingly tight: from background vocals to swooping strings to rock-steady drums, the band provides a framework for Moore to get unhinged in. The bright, clear recording and engineering make the final product more accessible, providing a clean window to see the band through. The results are compelling mix of major key and minor key tunes that you can sing along to and enjoy in a Frightened Rabbit sort of way.
It’s easy to put Gregory Pepper‘s Chorus! Chorus! Chorus! in the ICYMI category, because if you blink you’ll miss it: Pepper blitzes through 10 songs in under 14 minutes. This uncommonly aggressive approach to the “hit it and quit it” songwriting mentality creates an album of perfect melodies that appear once or twice, lodge in your brain forever, and then disappear into the next tune. The post-Weezer pop-rock that blazes its way through your eardrums is undeniably, irresistibly pristine: “Crush On You” and “Smart Phones for Stupid People” are fuzzed-out midtempo glory; “There In The Meadow (Was I Not a Flower At All?)” is a pseudo-metal pop-rock stomper; “Come By It Honestly” is an “Only in Dreams”-esque slow jam and the longest tune on the record, tipping the scales at 1:40.
But it’s not all Weezer-esque crunchy guitars. Pepper has an idiosyncratic vocal and melodic sensibility that delivers highly sarcastic and ironic lyrics in an earnest pop-rock style reminiscent of It’s a King Thing, only without the breathy sweetness. Pepper is singing straightforward melodies that still manage to bend my mind, as the endlessly fascinating, gymnastic opener “Welcome to the Dullhouse” shows. But it’s not enough to just create wild melodies, clever tunes and ironic lyrics: occasionally all the sarcasm drops and reveals pretty raw honesty as an extra layer to the tune (“I Wonder Whose Dick You Had to Suck?,” “There In The Meadow (Was I Not a Flower At All?)”). It’s a lot to ride on songs that barely (or don’t) break 60 seconds, but Pepper masterfully handles the incredible amount of things going on. It’s not easy to edit yourself down to the bare bones and still deliver a multi-layered experience that’s both fun and deep, but Chorus! Chorus! Chorus! is that rarest of albums that pulls it off. If you’re into indie-pop-rock, you need this one in your life.
I try to keep up with what’s cool in indie rock so that I’m not constantly namechecking the Hives and Death Cab for Cutie, but keeping up with what’s going on in alt-rock is way harder for me. As I was casually reading through Spin’s (biased, subjective, etc.) list of 50 best rock bands right now, I was pleasantly surprised to see Paramore up at number 9. I thought they had been lumped in with Flyleaf as lame, but I was wrong! (Is Flyleaf cool?) Which is great, because I feel totally guiltless comparing Tyto Alba’s Oh Tame One EP to a more mood-heavy Paramore. Melanie Steinway’s vocals soar and roar in front of an alt-rock backdrop that isn’t as gritty as everyone’s favorite indie grunge band Silversun Pickups (check the arpeggiated guitar on “Passenger”) but isn’t as post-rock-flavored as bands like Athletics.
Instead, they prefer to mix artsy rhythms and nuanced guitarscapes with rock song structures: “Deer” mixes a carefully patterned rhythm guitar line with a moseying lead guitar line that echoes back to The Photo Album-era Death Cab before exploding into guitar theatrics for the chorus (of sorts). The careful picking of the lead guitar line in “Divide” juxtaposes with groove-heavy bass and drums (but not as dance-tastic as in standout “New Apathy,” which is simply impressive) before building into the most memorable chorus on the EP, driven by multiple vocal melodies interacting. It’s the sort of work Tyto Alba excels at: twisting your expectations of what a rock song should do without totally overhauling the model. If you’re into thoughtfully distorted guitars with some groove-heavy elements, Oh Tame One will fit nicely in your collection.
Independent Clauses’ 10th birthday is coming up, and we promised loyal IC readers a present/surprise at the beginning of the year. Today is the day that we unveil that present. We are putting out a 20-band compilation album of covers from Give Up by The Postal Service called Never Give Up: Celebrating 10 Years of The Postal Service. It will be out May 15 on Bandcamp.
We’re running a Kickstarter campaign to finish up the funding of the mechanical licenses. We’re only looking for $695, because this project isn’t looking to change the world: we just want everyone to get paid legally. So, if you want to support Independent Clauses, get some sweet free tunes, support one of the bands below, or generally be awesome to each other, you should hit up the Kickstarter Page and check out the prizes. I’ll handmake you a mix CD! With art!
If rockabilly is ignored, western swing is forgotten. Sometimes a rockabilly release will see some coverage by flirting with the garage rock genre, but the 41-year-old Asleep at the Wheel and 13-year-old The Hot Club of Cowtown are the only bands that the wiki for western swing even acknowledges as currently existing. You know your genre is in trouble when…
Common Grackle, however, are here to fix this oversight. The sound of The Great Repression is anchored in western swing, occasionally crossing over to rockabilly, and it’s absolutely incredible. It’s not just that they appropriate the genre with skill; their use of the genre to say something about our culture is impressive. Rock’n’roll doesn’t raise eyebrows anymore; but uniqueness of western swing can.
And Gregory Pepper, vocalist/lyricist/songwriter for CG, certainly wants to raise eyebrows with his culture-skewering lyrics. “At the Grindcore Show” is a gentle two-step shuffle (complete with keening pedal steel!) that lays out his distaste for the grotesque theatricality of extreme music (“There’s severed goat heads stuck on pikes/and the only thing I know/is I don’t wanna die at the grindcore show”). “Thank God It’s Monday” is a wry, painful description of social outsiderdom (“All you honeys give a little honey to your homeboy/nobody wants to be the homeboy in my skin”). “All the Pawns” is a meandering musing on the current state of the economy. These narratives are presented inside an unusual genre, making the listener aware of everything. When there’s no affordances to hang on to, you’ve got to pay attention to everything.
And the band makes it worth your while to do so. Pepper’s voice is arresting, ranging from an emotive speak/sing (“At the Grindcore Show”) to outraged roar (“Safe Word Play”) while keeping a distinctly recognizable tone. The guitars swing (“Purgatory Rock and Roll”), sing (“Missed the Train”), sigh (“Please Stop”), roar (“The Great Depression”) and stumble (“Down With the Ship”) through the album with glee. The rhythm section pushes the pace throughout the entire album, heavy on snare and the up-down stand-up bass lines traditional in country. It all comes off flawlessly: the final charge to the end of the album in “The Great Depression” is just powerful.
The vocal melodies tie the lyrics and the instrumentals together: from the pristine “Quonset Hut” to the raging “The Great Depression” to the incredibly catchy “Thank God It’s Monday,” Pepper and his background vocalists deliver. You’ll be singing along shortly after you hear this for the first time. The melodies are too infectious not to do so.
The Great Repression says a ton in 10 songs and 26 minutes. An alternate view of music (and America) is crammed full of complaints, sarcasm and adrenaline here, and it’s worth investigating in detail. I talked about the more philosophical aspects of my relationship with The Great Repressiona couple days ago, so you should read that as a companion piece; this one’s strictly about the music. And the music is excellent, climbing my top-of-the-year list.
No need for a hook to open this review—Gregory Pepper and His Problems’ latest album, With Trumpets Flaring, has plenty to spare. The addicting hooks (and riffs, and melodies, and refrains…) are delivered in a well-crafted and wide-ranging collection of songs, put forth by this 26-year-old musician from Guelph, Ontario. The lyrics are at times honest, sardonic, absurd, self-loathing, nonsensical, ironic, and are very often some combination of those. Pepper’s pallet for his verbal meanderings explores every niche of pop, from full-fledged electro-pop to the sounds of a 1950s doo-wop band, complete with alto saxophone.
The album begins with a vaudeville accordion that suddenly gives way into an electronic backbeat that sounds akin to Chromeo, which then gives way into a more traditional, guitar-driven, indie-pop sound, which comes back fairly quickly to electro-pop. And that’s just the first song, “7ths and 3rds.” Although many of the songs are short—ten of the thirteen are under three minutes; the album itself is a mere half-hour—Pepper still manages to explore classic pop sounds such as the Beach Boys, Paul McCartney, and Weezer, and some lesser-loved genres (he makes a mocking foray into rock opera), while still giving all his songs a personal touch, a touch that oscillates between, and sometimes combines, hopeless optimism and sardonic dismissal.
Much of this touch comes from his lyrical content and vocal style. On “Built A Boat” Pepper’s voice sounds unsure and mournful in a simple, sparsely instrumented song that richly describes building a fantastic boat, only to find out that it doesn’t float. He sounds charmingly off-key in the short romp that is “There Were Dinosaurs.” In the singable chorus of “Drop the Plot”—which repeats “Do, do what you want to / you already do”—he exudes a tone that also hints towards self-loathing, the latter of which becomes an explicit lyrical theme in the pop-rock opus “It Must Be True.” This song spans a range of dynamics and emotions, building to a nerdy-angsty climax like the kind Weezer excelled at on their debut album. “One Man Show” best displays his vocal timbre and lyrical tone, which when averaged out over the album become something that is at the same time melancholic, optimistic, trenchant, relatable, and absurd.
The vocal themes tend towards either the macabre or the absurd, with witticisms in both. “If You Try” is a full-fledged 50s doo-wop song over which Pepper croons about various methods of suicide: “Jumping from a building / what a scary way to die. / Starving in the desert / what a boring way to die. // But it’s all called suicide if you try.” Part of the chorus in “I Was A John” has the protagonist expecting pasta to come out of his addressee’s fax machine. This same protagonist earlier declares, “I was psychotic and working in a woodshop / I built the stairway to heaven.”
To focus only on his lyrical wit and vocal delivery would be to ignore his deft ability to create catchy pop hooks over a wide range of styles. In fact, nearly every song on the album sounds different from the others. Some, like “Built a Boat” and “Outro” are intimate in their instrumental nakedness. Other pieces showcase Pepper’s ability to build pop-rock songs that span genres, have musical depth and still avoid feeling forced and overloaded. Pepper takes advantage of a diverse array of sounds, utilizing, among others, glockenspiel, electric drum sequencing, synthesizers, acoustic guitars, organ, handclaps, shakers, and multiple layers of vocal harmonies. His style spans pop-rock, electro-pop, nerd-rock, and indie-pop, and he fits it all together in the tremendous and delightful mess that is With Trumpets Flaring. As I find myself humming his songs more and more often, I realize that Gregory Pepper and His Problems might be the best pop surprise I have had in a long time. –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.