Deep Elm Records, whose mail I have been getting since Independent Clauses first started in 2003, has done something entirely unprecedented with its 200+ releases: made them all pay-what-you-want. All of them. This is simply mind-boggling. 200 releases spanning almost 20 years? It’s a treasure trove of everything from raging hardcore to emo to post-rock to post-punk to dance-rock to garage-rock to indie-pop to folk-pop. If it has a guitar in it, Deep Elm has probably put it out. In honor of their 200th, as well as their generosity, here’s a list of my Top Ten Favorite Deep Elm Releases.
10. So Close to Life – Moonlit Sailor. “Hope” is one of my favorite songs of all time, although not my favorite Deep Elm song (that one comes later). A great post-rock album.
9. This is Indie Rock, Vol. 2. The second compilation that I deeply loved from Deep Elm, and they do have a ton of them to keep up with. That’s one thing I’ve always loved about Deep Elm–they go all out for their artists, and that makes them one of the best in the business.
8. Sunshine in a Shot Glass – 500 Miles to Memphis. This album literally does everything I want a country-punk album to do. It could be a blueprint.
7. Why Aren’t I Home? – Athletics. I used to run to this album at a really low point in my life. The dramatic tensions between beautiful and crushing, artsy and muscly, longing and being… This was a wonderful soundtrack to those days.
6. We’ve Been Here Forever – Merkabah. Churning, roiling emo-rock: a blast from their early ’00s past displaced into the early ’10s. This album will have your fists in the air and your throat hoarse.
4. Nuet – Dorena. Deep Elm has gone on a serious post-rock bender as of late. Although Lights and Motion is deservedly soaking up tons of press, Dorena’s latest album just blows my mind.
3. There Should Be More Dancing – Free Diamonds. Way on the other end of the spectrum, this spazzy dance-rock masterpiece has some of the most impressively frantic (yet hooky!) bass lines I have ever heard.
2. Mare Vitalis – The Appleseed Cast. Not entirely because it contains the literally perfect song “Fishing the Sky,” but seriously. An art-rock epic capped off by what is, for my money, the best song Deep Elm has released.
1. Deep Elm: Too Young to Die – Various. The one that started it all for me; I’ve listened to this comp backwards and forwards more times than I can remember. Absolute gold.
Gold Light sits at the altar, fists bored to its chin, waiting for the hymn to end, so it can get to the real songs… the ones waiting at the fellowship hour to follow.
There’s an obvious throwback vibe on this self-titled record to Velvet Underground or more modernly The Tyde. Joe Chang, Gold Light himself, has a distinct voice, though. The lyrics are rife with simple wisdom, bent clichés, and plenty of baby-you-better-believe-its. The vocals (swathed in hall reverb) with just a Pixies bass line supporting–like Jonathan Richman with a story-time, Springsteen flow–on the song “Gold” say, “Well, darling, don’t you know that your heart of made of gold? How come you set the price so low?” Memorable and classic. “True Love Never Dies,” the album closer, has a Phil Spector shimmer and a da doo ron clippy clop, arpeggiated beauty.
Cool that it’s a cassette, but here’s what Gold Light should do. Tour the US really quickly supporting this release. Only Joe can drive the van, so he can focus on the lights and the destination, his delivery and the maddening lines–upon the highway and furrowed brow alike. Meanwhile, the other band members get to really tour the nation, burping up ethanol-boiled pizza slices, watching deer play on the side of the highway. Put out another full-length really soon after this one…like start recording it the day they get back. Then, put the new one and Gold Light out on vinyl. Lou Reed said, “There’s only X amount of time. You can do whatever you want with that time. It’s your time.”
Thirteen words on watching the sun rise to this album: I am not still drunk. I can run my hands over iridescent clouds.
Math Major by Art Contest is a catapult crock completely crammed with cottage cheese. Now, where are we going to aim it, and who gets to release the ropes?
I picture seeing this band live and remarking, “Wow, they were different than every other band on this bill.” Hyper, stand-out fun is tangible with every soaring guitar overture. Then, the rhythm section crashes in, swoops with emphasis showing the backbone and the corners of each song. RIYL Truman’s Water (yet not as musically reckless–“Banana Boat”), The Wicked Farleys (in frenetic vibe “Sugar Bay”), Weekends (but with bass guitar–“Riff Raff”). On “Tripp Pants” the words are, “I was kissing my dad, and I didn’t even know it. I was crashing my car, and no one ever told me.” Five gold stars.
Thirteen words on sun-tanning & eating lunch to this album: Pass me the gigantic Christmas tin of Cracker Jack. The peanuts are disgusting.
We Come From Exploding Stars is a reflective, hopeful dream of light… a reach from despair for the young and the restless. We just stayed right out there under the pines… a beach in the air for the dumb and thus tentless. Moonlit Sailor comes from Boras, Sweden where they often experience weeks without sunlight*.
The Sailors do epic, instrumental, ambient, triumphant post-rock. I think they sound like a tight band that does what they do very well: putting space between swells and sinking boats by the end of a song. It sounds like they have an Ibanez AD999, an Akai Head Rush, a tube bass head, and a great drummer. The tunes are well composed. They swell up and duck down, crushing you into a ball of foil. Unball that foil to reveal an imprint of a fossilized fish. Give it to your nephew on his 7th birthday. Watch him grow. Be proud when he becomes an archaeologist and finds all the dinosaurs the way they really looked. This band has grown up over the course of four albums, all on Deep Elm Records*. Their uncles should be proud.
Thirteen words on watching the sun set to this album: Time was once the decider; now, the Universe has sent space to me.–Gary Lee Barrett
When you’ve been in music for a while, nuance and subtlety become more important to you. This is true for listeners and creators; although I can still appreciate a mighty guitar riff, I find myself entranced by complex lyrical turns and less obvious arrangements. Tri-State is a band composed of people who have been in bands, and you can tell from the songs they write. These pop-rock tunes, while poppy, are not constructed as instant hits. These are measured tunes, tunes that take their time on little guitar bits (“All Different,” “Back Before”) just because. This unhurried, “let’s give this some space” method is much like that of IC fave The Brixton Riot.
Tri-State’s tunes unfold in pleasing ways: “Back Before” creates an ominous mood that builds and builds, while follow-up “Country Squire” toes the line between pop-rock and alt-country. It doesn’t feel disjointed at all; the songs feel like outworkings of the same thought process. If you’re into ’90s indie-rock (Pavement, Guided by Voices) or mature songwriting that appreciates with multiple listens, you should give Tri-State’s self-titled EP a spin.
Kira Velella‘s gentle voice is the primary feature of her singer/songwriter tunes, and for good reason. Her second soprano/alto voice commands the arrangements, sucking the listener in. “Lover, Move” and “Barn Swallow” both feature strong instrumental songwriting that is totally eclipsed by the endearing confidence of Velella’s voice. She accomplishes the rare feat of encapsulating confidence and vulnerability in a single performance, which keeps me coming back to the tunes.
This uncommon tension buoys the six-song Daughter EP, making it consistently interesting to the invested listener. The wintry arrangements accomplish a second improbable feat: the Damien Jurado-esque characteristic of feeling both lush and sparse at the same time. It gives Velella’s vocals both the forefront and a space to inhabit; it is easy to imagine Velella in a video clip of a snow-covered field for any of these tracks. The mood here is strong throughout tunes, giving a polish to the release. All told, this is an impressive debut offering from Kira Velella.
Categories can be stultifying and abrasive, but they are helpful starting points for conversation. Saying that U137 plays post-rock is mildly helpful to get the conversation started, but saying that the band plays “pretty” post-rock (Moonlit Sailor, Dorena, The Album Leaf) instead of “heavy” post-rock (Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Isis, Tyranny is Tyranny) is far more descriptive. You’re going to hear a lot of arpeggios, humongous crescendoes to jubilant melodies, and ethereal synths in Dreamer on the Run. If you’re into that, then the 40 or so minutes you spend listening will be breathtaking.
It’s not the sort of album where one particular track sticks out: it’s simply a forty-minute excursion into a beautiful section of the world. If you’re feeling down about the government shutdown, gun violence, poverty, or any other modern malaise, Dreamer on the Run can help you forget that for a few minutes and remember that there are so many beautiful things in the world to comfort you. This, simply put, is a gorgeous record.
The Severely Departed is a post-rock duo that does a very good job of not sounding like a duo. This isn’t to say that they pack their tunes with instruments to hide the fact that it’s two guys; it’s that the elements they incorporate sound full and natural. The songs on Two build and fall in exciting and interesting ways, playing off tensions between the performers. Many duos can become the back line supporting the front line, but The Severely Departed encourages the drums to play an equal role in the tunes. Whether this is by setting a near-constant cymbal backdrop for “Moving On” or by supplying solid contrast to the guitar antics in “A Parting Glance,” Ben Crowley’s drum parts shine. In parts of “Relapse,” Crowley’s complex parts are the whole action, as Chris Grimm repeats a distant guitar riff and lets Crowley roll. It reminds me of the acrobatic, heavily rhythmic drumming of Josh Baruth on The Appleseed Cast’s Mare Vitalis.
Grimm has his own highlights, as the guitar and keys bounce back and forth between beautiful clean melodies (a la Moonlit Sailor) and heavier riffs. The tensions between these two styles are played up in “Relapse,” making it the most intriguing tune of the bunch. But each of the five tracks here have their own merits: the layered piano and guitars of “Beneath the Years” allow for one of the more complex arrangements of the bunch, while “Into the Open” displays great use of tension. Two is an impressive release for the Severely Departed, and I hope it gets them a lot more recognition in the post-rock world.
Chicago’s Shiloh refers to itself as scum pop. It’s nowhere near as scuzzy as SanFran garage rock, but it does mash up indie-rock, indie-pop, and alt-country in a lyrically and musically irreverent way. There’s plenty of glee to be had throughout the 10-song Mrs.: the excellent a capella chorale of “Perfecting the Art” gets pummeled by one of the loudest rock sections on the album; opener “Midwestern Sigh” recalls Pavement and the like in their giddy disregard for vocal and songwriting conventions; “Winking Buick” is some sort of alt-country/indie/surf-rock instrumental jam sesh. The core of almost every tune is recognizably alt-country, but the tunes sprawl out over a wide spectrum from there. For instance, closer “Perfecting the Art” crams a mellow pop song, a saloon-style breakdown, and the aforementioned a capella/rock breakdown into 3:54 (all while still retaining an irresistible melody). If you’re into varied, genre-bending songwriting, Shiloh is a good bet to pique your interest.
Zack Walther and the Awe Hells play a mash-up of rock, folk, and Southern rock that calls up comparisons to Needtobreathe pretty quickly. Walther has a resonant, powerful voice that plays on top of twangy banjo (“Heartstrings”), foot-stomping swamp rock that incorporates a manic gospel tint (“Mustang Wine”), and mid-tempo rock (“Stand Up”) with equal ease. His baritone provides a lot of the direction, but the band provides swagger to match. The bass work is especially notable, as the low-end contributes a great deal to the feel of tunes like “Stand Up” and “Here With You.” If you wish that Zac Brown Band was a bit more muscly, or that Needtobreathe get a little bit too Muse-y at times, then Zack Walther and the Awe Hells’ 15:51 EP will be in your corner.
Canyons of Static‘s post-rock is the type that builds from a single element to jubilant roar and thrash, like the best moments of Sigur Ros. The big moment is often a pedal stomp that overdrives the guitar into the stratosphere. I wish I knew the name of it, as it’s an iconic sound: Final Days Society and others use it to great effect.
The “heavens just opened up” pedal is a powerful songwriting move, especially when paired with wailing drums and thumping bass. The beautiful “Wake,” which juxtaposes a monster wall of sound against delicate keys, is the perfect example of their oeuvre. If their show is anything like the towering epics of Farewell Shadows, CoS is absolutely overwhelming live.
The five tunes create an energetic, passionate atmosphere for almost all 34 minutes. This is a double-edged sword; while the release is consistent, it doesn’t show the variety of CoS’s songwriting ability. In future releases, I hope to see them diversify their songwriting moods and structures.
Canyons of Static’s well-established sound is foregrounded in Farewell Shadows. The band has chemistry, instrumental chops and experience (first release: 2006); now they need to grow in diversity. If you’re into Sigur Ros, Moonlit Sailor, Unwed Sailor or Dorena, you’ll be a big fan of Canyons of Static.
There’s a whole world of people out there; no one can meet everyone. And it’s impossible to form deep connections with every one of the relatively few people we meet. To make matters worse, there’s no way to guess when and where the next deep connection will be found. But when that deep connection is found, all is forgiven. All the frustration is worth it, because this new person is so great.
If listening to music is like meeting people, then “Hope” by Moonlit Sailor is my new best friend. Moonlit Sailor’s 2009 instrumental post-rock album So Close to Life has many treasures on it, but none compare to the bliss of “Hope.” The song is so gripping that I can guarantee you I’ll still be listening to it in ten years.
Moonlit Sailor’s instrumental post-rock skews to the pretty side of the spectrum. They love clean guitar lines, soaring melodies, melodic bass work and acoustic guitar, which is unusual for the genre. They have much more in common with Unwed Sailor than they do with Mogwai. “Hope” is the epitome of their sound.
The tension-heavy intro, full of cymbal splashes and pensive piano flourishes, gives way to a solo acoustic guitar playing the beautiful main chord progression. Then, in an absolutely brilliant moment, the whole band gleefully crashes back in at full speed and intensity. My jaw dropped the first four or five times I heard it. The only way the song could be more gleeful is if someone shot off a confetti cannon at exactly the moment they start up and let the colors rain down as the band tears through the song.
The band keeps playing through various iterations of the main melody, getting heavier and heavier as the song goes along. They keep building tension on top of tension, only letting a little bit of it go at each “chorus.” This makes the final payoff much more gratifying. The final time around, the drums are pounding, the guitars are wailing away, and the piano is twinkling is an incredibly satisfying way. After all, they’ve nailed it: the whole thing sounds exactly like what I believe hope sounds like. It is absolutely my favorite track of this year so far, and it wasn’t even released this year.
Moonlit Sailor doesn’t just bring the power on “Hope.” They know how to set up a tune and build it slowly, as only one song here drops below the 5-minute mark. “Landvetter” is a more pensive piece, but it retains an energy that doesn’t let it get mired down in mope. “Sunbeams” has a wonderful wide-eyed feel to it due to the simple yet powerful melody. “1994” falls between the glee of “Sunbeams” and the thoughtfulness of “Landvetter” to create an incredibly beautiful song that would not be out of place on a Sigur Ros record. The enormous synth moment at 2:30 of “1994” creates an ethereal, uplifting mood that simply reminds me of a higher plane.
There are a couple of songs that drag on So Close to Life, but they are inconsequential compared to the number of tunes that pay off many times over. This album is an absolute must for all lovers of post-rock, especially those who like crescendos, tension and epic moments. Moonlit Sailor loves that stuff, and they give it to their listeners in spades. “Hope,” “1994” and “Landvetter” are simply some of the best tunes I’ve ever heard in the genre. Highly recommended.
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.