Tim de Vil and His Imaginary Friends‘ Beating Off the Loneliness is an indie pop album with vocals that skew toward the speak/sing of Say Anything or MeWithoutYou. The arrangements are deeply layered, compiled from acoustic and electronic instruments: some songs pile up found sounds and synths and drums and all sorts of stuff into a wistful, rueful amalgam that yet retains energy (“Purge-atory,” “The Patron Saint of Lost Causes”). Songs like “Who’s Afraid of Sarah Little” and “It’s Not Me, It’s You” are indie-folk ramblers instead of collages. These latter songs have occasional vocal melodies (“Say It…”), but the gold moments appear when lead singer Justin Robbins expertly controls the mood and tone of his spoken word–he can pack a lot of emotional power into individual lines.
Lyrically, this one is very much a breakup album, but it’s more in the mold of Spiritualized’s punchy Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space and Josh Ritter’s “everything that happened after the breakup” lyrical approach to The Beast in Its Tracks than a mopefest. (Not that I don’t love a good mopefest.) As is often the case with speak/sing work, the lyrics are dense and carefully constructed, despite sounding off-the-cuff; there are pop culture references (“Sleepy Hollow,” for example), emotional monologues, and word games to be had (like the title of “Hail, Mary”). The sum of all these parts is a fully-realized statement of an album that clearly shows Tim De Vil’s songwriting and lyrical skills. Fans of collage artists, spoken word ramblers, or experimental indie-pop will find much to enjoy here.
Precise yet fluid, the clean electric guitar work of Coldplay’s debut album Parachutes was a hallmark, even though its smash “Yellow” was not a good depiction of the characteristic. The band abandoned the sound for piano-rock on its follow-up and hasn’t looked back, leaving a hole that Australians Sleepy Tea are finally starting to fill. It’s tough for me to hear opener “Make Believe” or closer “Ghosts” without thinking of how well they would fit on Parachutes. Thankfully, that’s a massive compliment from this corner, as I mean that Sleepy Tea’s debut The Place Where We Lay contains beautiful, lithe vocals that intertwine with immaculate arrangements which belie how much work it takes to make a perfect-sounding song.
“Make Believe” establishes the mood of the five-song EP right off the bat, with an easygoing confidence in the gently swaying arrangement of tasteful drums, burbling atmospherics, and spot-on vocal performance that calls to mind a theoretical male-fronted version of Braids. It’s a rare tune that catches my attention like this one. The rest of the EP lives up to the billing, whether the tense juxtaposition of energetic trip-hop drumming and pensive piano in “At World’s End” or the towering crescendo throughout the entirety of “Safer.” This is a band with a tightly constructed idea of what it wants to sound like, and that’s rarely a bad thing. Sleepy Tea has chops and taste, so I look forward to much more from them.
I’ve written before about running out of band names, but if I hadn’t, Here Is Your Temple would be a good reason to question whether or not all the good band names have already been taken. Besides the name, though, HIYT are worthy of discussion for the quality of their music: The Swedish quintet plays music that sounds like all of Spiritualized’s discography jammed together onto one EP. Opener and title track “So High” is a propulsive piece marked by a marching rhythm, fuzzed-out bass, a choir, and synths. It’s like something that might appear on Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating In Space. “Big Way” is built on a dominating guitar riff and synthesized vocals, which also sounds like Ladies and Gentlemen. “Once Rich” is a quieter tune, pairing the omnipresent synths with downtempo acoustic guitar (as in J. Spaceman’s Amazing Grace era), while “Say Hey” adds an optimistic edge to the acoustic sound. It’s a very varied EP.
The one thing that holds the sound together is HIYT’s commitment to melody; all of these songs hinge on either a vocal or guitar melody that is punched way up in the mix. Whether creating Fleetwood Mac-esque mystery (“Say Hey”) or rock’n’roll (of a sort), the band zeros in on melody. And that’s what keeps this wildly varied EP from being disjointed: their melodic center remains true, showing off a band with many facets. If you’re into synth-rock or synth-pop without cheesiness, So High should be in your ears.
In ESPN’s 30 for 30 film “Jordan Rides the Bus,” Michael Jordan is noted as being relieved that his first professional baseball spring game experiences were terrible. He wanted to get the initial mistakes out of the way and get on to playing. Artists’ debuts are often like that: “let’s get it done and learn from it.” In an age where “release” is a shifting concept, this sometimes means as much as a whole album of uneven content or as little as sporadic singles released on unheralded Soundcloud accounts. But the mantra stands: you have to start somewhere.
The Phusion starts with In the Shadows of Giants, which does the neat side-step of acknowledging in the title that there are a lot of influences on display. And there are: the jazz/funk/indie group throws down chord progressions generally associated with jazz (“Moving Fast,” “Birdbrain”), ripping bass lines (“All That You Are,” “Comfortable Prison”), and a liberal dose of Ladies and Gentlemen-era Spiritualized synth wash (“Where Did They Go?”). The ph/fusion is the thing on display here. The band does a pretty good job of synthesizing, yet it’s still clear that these are disparate influences mashed together with a great deal of rehearsal. The evidence of thought and practice show up all over, however, in the precision with which the instrumentalists interact. If they keep this work ethic together (or even work harder), then they will be on their way to building their own little corner of the indie-verse.
The Phusion hasn’t found its unique voice yet, and that’s totally fine. Radiohead didn’t figure out who they were on Pablo Honey, either. But they throw down some intriguing ideas on In The Shadow of Giants, and that’s what a debut should do.
I just read a piece about the early ’80s Athens, GA, scene by Anthony DeCurtis, and he asserts that the main thing people did there was dance. Seeing as the B-52s erupted from that college town, I can get behind that. Androcles and the Lion, however, do not share this body rockin’ predisposition with their geographical forebears. The Athenians in A+L are pensive indie-rockers, although their sound occasionally skews harder than your average rainy day band.
“All We Were” opens As Far as Blindness Could See with a sheet of morphing distortion that blends into some humming synths before breaking out into a pulsing rhythm. It’s vaguely spacey, in a Spiritualized sort of way; it’s a familiar and comforting experience. “Eulogy” is as loud as A+L gets, with clanging guitar offsetting the mopey vocals and oscillating synths. While it’s not bad, it’s easily the least memorable track, as A+L’s melodic bent is showcased much better in their quieter tunes.
“The Creek That Ran Behind Our House” depends on acoustic guitar and banjo for the basis of the tune, and calm vocals (recalling Damien Jurado) sell the tune perfectly. It’s the type of tune you put near the end of mixtapes and just chill to. Even when the arrangement fills out and speeds up, it’s still pretty downtempo (although the clanging guitar is a bit unnecessary). “Tired Voices” is just that, and it’s an apt closer to the 7-song EP.
Androcles and the Lion have a slow-paced, sad-eyed take on indie-rock. If Pedro the Lion and Ladies and Gentlemen-era Spiritualized had gotten together and covered each other’s songs, this may have sounded like it. If that’s as intriguing to you as it is to me, you’ll have a lot to shout about in As Far as Blindness Could See.
It’s now been over a month since I saw Sufjan Stevens at McFarlin Auditorium in Dallas, TX. The time gap is not for lack of interest in writing about the proceedings; the show was so overwhelming that it took a while for me to process it.
Only complicating the digestion of the show is its inseparability from The Age of Adz, from which the show pulled material heavily. Instead of the album being a teaser for the show or vice versa, the two create a total experience greater than either part. You can’t see Sufjan’s choreographed dances on the album; you can’t hear “I Want to Be Well” live. Both are necessary for a full understanding of what’s happening in both.
Much has been made of Sufjan’s recent drum machine obsession, and that is an important part of The Age of Adz, for sure. Sufjan wants to show the chaos that comes of a broken heart, and the brittle pounding of his digital music is a perfect medium for that. But it is important to note that he doesn’t just slam the listener with a post-apocalyptic slab of traumatized notes – he waits until track three for “The Age of Adz.” The first two tracks cannot be forgotten, lest the album become Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space redux. Not that appropriating Spiritualized’s masterpiece would be that much of a bummer, but Sufjan’s eyes are set higher than that.
And that’s why “Futile Devices” opens the album. More than just a way to ease hardcore Sufjanites into his new sound, it plays an essential role in setting the scene of the album. My first impression of the lyrics was that Sufjan is singing from the perspective of the girl who is leaving him; even though there are references to the person who would be Sufjan crocheting, I kind of expect Sufjan to be able to know how to crotchet. “I think of you as my brother, although that sounds dumb; and words are futile devices,” Sufjan laments at the close of the track. And what poor nice guy hasn’t heard a variant on those lines before?
After inserting some sounds like muted bombs dropping (nice touch!), Sufjan snakes his way into “Too Much.” It’s a nice post-Postal Service tune; a little heavy on the staccato drumming, but featuring a good melody and harmony lines that distinctly recall previous Sufjan work.
That’s the secret of Age of Adz, after all: it’s a regular Sufjan album when you strip away the digital stuff. It would be (mostly) possible to remove all the digital parts from the album, as there’s a remarkable amount of organic instrumentation throughout. I hope some aspiring DJ pulls it all out and gives us Age of Adz … Naked. It would be an interesting listen, but here’s what I expect we’d find if someone like Max Tannone did the project: Sufjan still writes amazing songs in much the same way he used to, regardless of the window dressing.
So is “Too Much” the giveaway that the digital stuff is a gimmick? No. That’s where the live performance comes in to make sense of things. Sufjan’s tour was a multi-sensory experience, not just a concert. “Too Much” live included a spastic video that isolated movements of Sufjan and others, bringing light to the robotic nature of motion when connecting motions are lost. Sufjan and two backup dancers performed a similar dance while singing, which was less spastic but more disorienting due to the odd nature of the planned movements.
Who hasn’t felt disjointed during a breakup? Sufjan points out the all-encompassing obsession with romantic love in our society in the lyrics of “Too Much,” then complains that because “there’s too much riding on that,” we’re all messed up when it goes wrong. Leave it to Sufjan to point out something so obvious that no one talks about it, and to make the point seem so clear that I can’t believe no one else is saying it as loudly.
But, as breakups are wont to do, things get worse. Sufjan noted during his performance that “Age of Adz” was “where I confuse heartbreak for the apocalypse,” and that’s exactly what the song sounds like. The art which graces the cover and fills the interior booklet correspond to this theme, as Sufjan told us (He also noted that it would have been artist Royal Robertson’s birthday, and that his widow was in the audience for the performance).
This and “I Want to Be Well” are the most jarring tunes on the album, and not just because they’re some of the most electronic-heavy ones. They touch a really deep nerve: It’s discomforting to hear Sufjan’s version of the break-upocalypse; the crushing melodrama is all too familiar and all too frustrating (irony: the girl I’m dating was with me at this show).
He follows it up with even more melodrama, as “I Walked” has some of the most raw (and, honestly, most high school-ish) lyrics he’s ever written. But the music in “I Walked” is one of the best musical efforts on the album, as it takes the songwriting style from previous work and effortlessly transitions it to electronic pop. As far as I can tell, there are no organic instruments in the recorded version of this song. Sufjan dances disjointedly in this song too, as well he should, for the same reasons as before.
Sufjan travels through various other breakup emotions: hindsight on “Now That I’m Older,” accusation on “Bad Communication,” longing for memories on “All for Myself” and self-motivation on “Get Real Get Right” and “Vesuvius.” When performed live, “Vesuvius” becomes even more dramatic than the recorded version; with an army of lights, Sufjan and his ten-piece band played accompaniment to the stage glowing red and orange in flickering patterns. They recreated the inside of a volcano, transforming the song from good to mind-blowing. In terms of sheer enjoyment, “Vesuvius” is the highlight from the show and the album; it is beautiful, powerful and moving.
Sufjan closes the album with “I Want to Be Well,” which has gotten lots of note for being the one where he says fuck sixteen times, specifically in the repeated phrase “I’m not fucking around.” Many Christians were sad. But as a Christian, I was not sad: these Christians condemning him for his display of emotion are not very honest with themselves. How many times have curse words burbled to the surface of terrible breakups? Lots. Especially inside people’s heads, which is where we are when we listen to Sufjan. Christian or no, it’s a hard thing to be broken up with, and sometimes it ends up with curse words.
Aside from that, it’s the biggest hopeful moment on the album, as Sufjan decides that he wants to get better from the breakup. He may not be getting better yet, but he wants to. He manages to say, “And I forgive you, even as you choke me!” That’s a pretty solid conclusion, wrapping around to the beginning of the album’s statements in “Futile Devices.” The mad rush of drums and vocals that is the last two and a half minutes of the song are some of the most heart-pounding on the album, because they’re simply cathartic.
It’s relieving that there’s a conclusion. If Sufjan didn’t have any finishing insight on what he saw, this whole album would be a hot mess (i.e. most breakup albums). But the lyrics, music and performances of Age of Adz all shed new light and commentary on the oldest pop music subject in the book.
We could have guessed this was coming, honestly. We got to hear about his home state, his religion, his childhood and his hobbies — why hadn’t we heard of his love life yet? Now we have. And boy, that was one massive breakup.
How bad was Sufjan’s breakup? Well, bad enough that he tells the whole story twice, because “Impossible Soul” is a 25-minute trip through the same exact story we just heard. It has almost exactly the same emotional arc as the first 49 minutes of the album, albeit with an extra bit that didn’t make the previous songs: an emphatic dance party in the middle where he recounts the best parts of the relationship. During the live performance, he heavily autotuned himself and seriously got down with the dance moves. I mean, Kanye West had nothing on this dude. He had an upside-down visor with a long tail of silver streamers on it. He was rocking it. It was incredibly fun to watch.
Aside from the dance floor jamz, the mini-opus travels through many of the same moods and feelings that the previous album did. And it’s brilliant. There’s really nothing else that can be said about a twenty-five minute track that doesn’t feel nearly that long.
Sufjan fleshed out his live performance with a few non-Adz tracks; “Chicago” made an obligatory appearance, as well as opener “Seven Swans” and “That Dress Looks Nice on You.” He played a couple from All Delighted People EP, which were nice (which is pretty much my conclusion on that whole EP, as well). They were thoroughly enjoyed by the audience, but in comparison to the inspiring opuses of Age of Adz, they felt a bit pale. Anything that can make the life-affirming power of “Chicago” seem pale needs to be taken very seriously.
And, seriously, Age of Adz is about as good as pop music gets. Sufjan has pushed the envelope of his own groundbreaking sound to its outer limits and returned with previously unknown jewels from those reaches. It’s fitting that acoustic guitar opens and closes the album; it truly is a Sufjan Stevens record. It’s just a Sufjan record that reaches for the very stars that compose the video of his “Seven Swans” performance. He pulls them down, too; there’s not a clunker anywhere on the album. Individually and collectively, this album succeeds. With the live show augmenting it, it becomes downright awe-inspiring.
Will this be his sound from now on? Almost certainly not. This is a document of what he went through that one time, and he’s a very good documenter of what he goes through. Like Ben Folds said, “I do the best imitation of myself,” and Sufjan’s most recently necessary imitation of himself required apocalyptic booms and synthesizers. Who knows what will happen next? I highly doubt Sufjan does, and that’s the wonder of his artistry. He makes as he is: he lets us in on secrets. The Age of Adz is not in the future; it happened already to Sufjan Stevens.
And we get to see and hear as he sees and hears. Rare is the talent so grand as Sufjan’s, and rarer still is an album so completely successful as Age of Adz.
One of the great things about The Honest Mistakes Break Up is that it’s a breakup album with little to no wallowing in depressing sounds. The members of The Honest Mistakes made an upbeat pop album with jangly guitars, cheery organs, snappy drums and tambourines to chronicle their breakup (or breakups). While this is a refreshing take on the breakup album (seriously, I only need one Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space), the music nearly indicates at some points that breakups are flippant or even to be celebrated. It’s a bit incongruous.
The lyrics are firmly grounded in breakupland, (“days all measured in defeat/nights spent wandering the streets” from the musically perky “Feel Good”), meaning they’re sometimes at odds with the music. Even “If It Isn’t Me,” the most heartbreaking lyric on the album, has an upbeat feel.
The songs themselves are great. The jangly guitars support buoyant vocal melodies and tight harmonies; the rhythm section holds its own nicely. The songs range from charmingly twee (“Tell Everybody,” complete with whistling and tap dancing) to bouncy (“Long Way Around,” which is a highlight) to beach-party-groovin’ (the excellent “Stay”).
If these songs were paired with any other set of lyrics (like, perhaps, Fountains of Wayne’s Welcome Interstate Managers, which draws off corporate suburban America for lyrical matter), this would be an amazing album. The songs themselves are awesome, but the juxtaposition with the lyrics is odd and difficult for me to get over. If you’re one of those people who never hears lyrics anyway, jump all over The Honest Mistakes Break Up. You will wordlessly hum the totally poppy tunes and necessarily be summery and enthused. It’s just that type of wonderful album. But if you’re a lyric-ponderer, this will leave you scratching your head. You’ll still tap your toe, but with confusion.
The most satisfying breakup album I’ve ever heard is the Postal Service’s Give Up. It’s not that Tamborello and Gibbard pinned the sound of breaking up perfectly (that honor goes to Spiritualized’s miserable/wonderful Ladies and Gentlemen, We are Floating in Space). It sits above the rest because the whole thing is told in chronological order. Attentive listeners can know exactly what’s happening at every point in the album. It turns the collection of songs into an experience.
Paul Phillips’ Every Time I Leave might be a breakup album. There are breakup songs on it, but there are also love songs and worship songs. The jumble makes it difficult to discern what the point of this folk/country album is. And, alas, there may not be one. It may simply be a collection of songs. As a collection of songs, it’s not bad at all, but I feel like Phillips could aspire to so much more than just a collection of songs.
Phillips comes from the Bob Dylan school of vocals: they’re an immediate turn-off that slowly grow on you to the point of affection. His tenor is warbling and creaky, similar to Dylan’s, but thankfully, Phillips doesn’t have that horrible nasal tone that Dylan has. When Phillips keeps his voice low on songs like “Time, Time,” it’s hard to even discern the warbles and breaks.
Taking the focus off the vocals allows the songwriting to shine. I wish it would happen more often, as Phillips crafts some excellent tunes on Every Time I Leave. “Time, Time,” “Come What May” and “Until We Meet Again” are simply gorgeous tunes. The common denominator in all of these is the removal of the excess instrumentation. When Phillips gets down to the bare bones of songwriting, he strikes gold with fingerpicked melodies, subtle keys, and a calm mood. His upbeat tunes accentuate the problems of his songwriting; the slower, quieter ones play up his strengths. He even busts out a solid falsetto on “Come What May,” which surprised me.
There are upbeat tunes here as well, but they’re standard for the genre. The downtempo work is what shines. If Phillips could apply the lessons learned from the slow tracks to the aesthetics of the uptempo tracks, he would be able to accomplish a lot. He’s got solid songwriting skills that need to be refined. His voice needs to be reined in. Future albums could be structured to not be so confusing to the listener. Still, Every Time I Leave is a solid effort from a developing songwriter. I hope to hear more from Paul Phillips in the future.
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.