Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Keeps' songwriting carries a torch for thoughtful rockers

December 4, 2011

I’ve been a fan of Josh Ramon’s work since 2006, when I discovered his bands Theanti and Lamps on the label Inderma Music; I liked them so much that it appears I reviewed their Dot With a Dot in a Dot Dot Dot split EP twice. (I liked it more the second time, apparently.)

Ramon is back with one old and one new collaborator as Keeps, and the band’s sophomore album No Bridges has been keeping me off-guard for the last few weeks. Ramon and co. are comfortable playing both improvised indie-rock and the traditional, song-based variety, and Keeps is the latter: The arrangements are comparatively tight and song lengths hover around four minutes. The big difference from then to now is the weight of the songs.

The band still has elements of their erratic, spontaneous self of old, but No Bridges incorporates those elements into thoughtful songwriting and deft atmosphere control. Excellent use of abrupt entries and exits makes opener “Cantland” and closer “Arkansas Blackbird” into the highlights they are: sections roil and churn in guitar sludge, only to snap into wiry riffs before blasting off to more sections of rock. The forlorn guitars/distant vocals/pounding drums outro of “Arkansas Blackbird” is one of the more haunting ends to an album I’ve heard this year, especially since it appears suddenly.

There are some songs of both sides of the spectrum: “Midwest Urn” is a raging rocker that makes me think of the thoughtful anger of late ’90s and early 2000s post-hardcore. But even that song has a slow section toward the end before picking up for the conclusion. “Someone Wanted More” is a pensive, acoustic-led post-rock-type piece, albeit with some distortion and dissonance thrown in to keep the vibe going.

No Bridges works better as a whole album, like the aforementioned late ’90s post-hardcore and similar-era math rock. I didn’t really listen to music in theose genres for particular songs: I listened for how the music felt and made me feel. (This is the argument Chuck Klosterman makes for ’80s metal, and, by extension, pretty much all music in Fargo Rock City.) Post-hardcore’s aesthetic of getting the emotion down instead of being technically perfect is big here as well; Ramon’s oft-desperate, impassioned voice is a great emotive vehicle. He ekes out some memorable melodies (“Arkansas Blackbird”), but the more important thing is that it all sounds slightly unhinged (the ironically titled “Stayble,” “Old Tangled”). Whether leading with an acoustic guitar melody, an erratic guitar line or churning distortion, No Bridges seems teetering over the edge of something.

Keeps’ No Bridges reminds of the early 2000s, when dark, heavy, thoughtful rock was trying to maintain artistic integrity by staving off those who would turn it into emotionally abrasive hardcore, simplify it into pop-punk, or become whatever Brand New is now. But the “everybody else” sides of the sound won, leaving pretty much only Thursday to carry the flag for thoughtful, aesthetically-refined rockers. Keeps does not sound like Thursday, nor does Keeps have a telegraphed political bent. However, the aesthetic ideals seem correlated, and it’s really encouraging to hear Keeps go to bat for loud, intricate, thoughtful rock without pretension, irony or coat-tailing in some other genre. Highly recommended.

Download “Someone Wanted More.”
Download “Its Hard when Its So Easy.”

Lamps-Dot with a Dot in a Dot Dot Dot

May 1, 2007

theantiTheanti/[”>Lamps – Dot with a Dot in a Dot Dot Dot

TheAnti’s half of Dot with a Dot in a Dot Dot Dot (which you can hear here astonished me. I’m used to stuff from Inderma Records being almost impossibly indie – as close to indecipherable as possible, but still retaining that last shred of melodicism. Whether it be ambient, improv or even singer/songwriter, I expect undefinable weirdness from Inderma Records.

That’s why I was floored when cohesive song structures busted out of my speakers. I was even more amazed that the stuff was incredibly tightly recorded – I’ve also come to expect odd, lo-to-mid-fi recordings from them.

But the thing that really blew my mind, spun me on my head and let me know that Theanti is committed to being as unexplainable and indefinable as their previous releases is the fact that even though these songs are real songs and not experiments, they’re still entirely unclassifiable.

Theanti combines the raw speed and intensity of punk, the aggressive yet artsy melodicism of post-hardcore and the gritty clang of indie-rock to create songs that burn with a raw passion that is extremely rare. These songs are powered by adrenaline, and although there are still rhythmic freakouts, they serve to further the purpose of fist-pumping rock’n’roll.

Opener “The Cancer Generation” is the epitome of Theanti’s evolution, jumping back and forth between quickly-strummed gritty guitar lines and slower, melodic sections with layers of angst-ridden vocals cascading over the top. It sounds like all of the best aspects of MeWithoutYou with a searing, honest shot of realism replacing MWY’s brooding moodiness.

“What Keeps You Alive Can Kill You” swerves even closer towards pop music with (dare I say it) memorable melodies amid the yelling and clanging. It sounds a little bit like the punk revival that Latterman and the rest of the New York punks are creating. But right when it starts to seem like something, it changes – the rhythms that the drummer infuses here really swing the sound towards something recognizable to listeners of post-hardcore and old-school emo.

“We Are Ruins” has a catchy melody augmented by a nifty rhythmic pattern – and the vocals are even sung. The best rhythmic freakout of the entire four songs is captured here, before bashing into the most straight-forward rock section of the entire set. This is stuff that Mars Volta fans would eat up, for sure. The guitar and drum work here is nothing short of torrential. It’s fantastic.

“People Like to Talk” would be a three-minute pop song, if Theanti didn’t go and make it more interesting by adding sampled clips of people talking and wild, passionate, barely-contained vocals. It just serves to show that sometimes the most unexpected thing an unconventional band can do is throw something conventional out and show just how bad everyone else is at doing it.

Theanti continues to amaze me with each release. Inderma Records is actually selling this split (for 5 bucks, but still, they’re actually selling something), which is a new development as well. Maybe everyone’s growing up. Maybe the world is ending. For sure, you should check out this split, because if Lamps is half as good as Theanti is, this will be something you regret missing.

Stephen Carradini

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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