Eric and Happie‘s It’s Yours is a pristine example of a male/female duo folk-pop album in 2016. The eight songs of the album rarely feature more than guitar/bass/drums, which is just the way I like it. The subtle inclusions of ukulele, strings, and accordion provide great accent to the tracks. Eric and Happie are credited with vocals on every track. It’s an uncomplicated collection of tunes that works excellently.
The songs are not as high-drama as those of The Civil Wars, nor as perky as The Weepies’; it’s not as radio-curated as The Lumineers’ work (with the exception of “Falling For You,” which is a romp complete with “hey!”s). Instead, these are folk songs with pop melodies that you can sing along to with ease. There are romantic songs (the title track, “Falling for You,” “A Dream”), travel songs (“Louisiana,” “Oklahoma,” “Stranger”), and more poetic offerings (“They’ll Never Take Us Alive”).
The tunes often land in the realm of Jenny and Tyler’s early work, which was warm, friendly, and pop-oriented. It’s a pure, unadulterated sound that often doesn’t last past a few albums, as the lure of larger arrangements draws so many. (And those larger arrangements can be awesome too.) But there’s a special glow that shines off an intimate, simply-wrought album like this; that lightning in a bottle is rarely caught.
The Soldier Story‘s Flowers for Anonymous inhabits a dusky, complex space triangulated between the suave nighttime antics of Bloc Party, the howling reveries of The Walkmen, and the manic fever of MuteMath’s first record. The songs of this record absorb the best bits of each of those bands and synthesize them into something new and fresh. The trick here is that Colin Meyer has the chops to pull off frantic, mathy indie-rock, but he distills those melodic and rhythmic tendencies into tension-laden mid-tempo pieces that are just as ghostly as they are grounded.
Tunes like “Drifting Apart” have patterned guitar leads, syncopated drumbeats, whirling vocals, and more, but in the service of a subdued, push-and-pull mood. Follow-up “Talk With Our Eyes” barely contains the underlying power and passion, as it spikes up through the tension in the form of synths, drums, glitchy beats, and more. It’s a tune that carries the OK Computer torch, updating the “contemporary technological fears in sonic form” palette. (It’s not surprising that various eras of Radiohead are a touchstone for these pieces as well.)
But Meyer isn’t all chaotic rock filtered through massive restraint filters. Elsewhere Meyer turns his penchant for complex, burbling guitar lines into an indie-pop mold, creating beautiful, subtle tunes like “Life is Short” and “An Overdue Farewell.” These tunes balance Meyer’s complicated arrangements with his smooth, airy, at-times-feathery vocal melodies. He can soar with the best of them, but he can also disappear off into the distance. This tension between the chaotic and the delicate is a powerful element in making Flowers for Anonymous a big success. There aren’t many people making music like this; adventurous listeners will greatly enjoy hearing Meyer’s carefully constructed sonic landscapes.
I’m pretty far behind the bandwagon on reviewing M. Lockwood Porter‘s How to Dream Again, even though I have it on vinyl. It’s been getting a ton of accolades from people like Paste and No Depression, so it’s been doing pretty well without me chiming in. But as a person who’s reviewed both Judah’s Gone and 27, I did have a few thoughts that maybe haven’t been said before. (Probably not.)
The new lyrical direction of How to Dream Again has been getting a lot of play: it’s a protest record, save for three love songs at the beginning of the record, and it’s an incisive, thoughtful turn. It pushes on both on internal problems (“Sad/Satisfied”) and external issues (every other song) in a style that’s more Woody Guthrie than Bob Dylan; there aren’t a whole lot of stacked metaphors, but there is a whole lot of direct analysis. Porter also continues to grapple with religion, this time taking God to task over the question of God’s lack of direct intervention on issues of injustice. It’s a question that has resonated through the ages, and one that fits in a protest album. Even if Porter and I come to different conclusions on the matter, the question is real and remains.
The musical direction is also different, albeit more slightly. The songs here are a synthesis of the folk of Porter’s first record and the American rock’n’roll of his second; the troubadour folk style that comes along with protest lyrics is present throughout as well. The three sounds come together to make a mature sound for Porter, one that may not be his last stop (who among us can claim to be in our final form?), but certainly indicates his direction. There are dashes of Dawes (“Sad/Satisfied”) in the rhythmic vocal delivery, rattling ’50s rock’n’roll throughout, and more things thrown in the pot. The title track, which closes the album, brings it all together into a very American amalgam. It’s Porter’s distinct voice that leads the way, adding the final element to make the sound unique. If you’re into protest music or American folk/rock/other, How to Dream Again should be on your to-hear list. It probably already is.
1. “New Moon” – Namesayers. The lead guitar here is angular, cranky, and brittle, contrasting against the swirling, low-key psychedelia laid down by the rest of instruments and Devin James Fry’s mystical croon. It makes for an intriguing rock that sounds like midnight in the desert with a big bonfire going. (Which is pretty much what the title and the album art convey, so this one has its imagery and soundscapes really tight in line.)
2. “O Zephyr” – Ptarmigan. It’s tough to be a serious alt-folk band without sounding over-earnest or overly ironic. Ptarmigan finds the perfect center, where it sounds like a bunch of people who love folk and have something to say are making their noise how they want. Fans of River Whyless, Fleet Foxes (often violators of the over-earnest, but nonetheless), and Barr Brothers will enjoy this.
3. “Axolotl” – Lord Buffalo. Lord Buffalo specializes in primal, pounding, apocalyptic pieces that build from small beginnings to terrifying heights. This is an A+ example of the form.
4. “A Miracle Mile” – St. Anthony and the Mystery Train. Equally apocalyptic as above, but in a more Southern Gothic, Nick Cave, howl-and-clatter style of indie-rock than the all-out-sonic assault. A wild ride.
5. “Spring” – Trevor Ransom. A tone-poem of a piece, illustrating the arrival of spring with found sounds, distant vocals, and confident piano.
6. “Not Enough” – Sunjacket. This inventive indie-rock song draws sounds and moods from all over the place, creating a distinct, unique vibe. There’s some Age of Adz weirdness, some Grizzly Bear denseness, some giant synth clouds, and more.
7. “Bushwick Girl” – CHUCK. A goofy, loving parody of NYC’s hippest hipsters in appropriately creaky, nasally, quirky indie-pop style.
8. “Ghost” – Mood Robot. Chillwave meets ODESZA-style post-dub with some pop v/c/v work for good measure. It’s a great little electro-pop tune.
9. “Da Vinci” – Jaw Gems. All the swagger, strut, stutter, and stomp of hip-hop and none of the vocals. Impressive.
10. “Disappearing Love” – Night Drifting. If the National’s high drama met the Boss’s roots rock, you’d end up with something like this charging tune with a huge conclusion.
11. “Black and White Space” – Delamere. Britpop from Manchester with a catchy vocal hook and subtle instrumentation that comes together really nicely.
12. “Plastic Flowers” – Poomse. Predictions of human doom over crunchy guitars give way to a densely-layered indie-rock track with claustrophobia-inducing horns. If you’re into Mutemath or early ’00s emo (non-twinkly variety), you’ll find some footholds here.
13. “Lake, Steel, Oil” – Basement Revolver. There’s something hypnotic about Chrisy Hurn plaintively singing her heart out as if there isn’t a howling wall of distortion raging around her.
I’ve been training for a half-marathon since August, and I now only have two more training runs before the 13.1 miles of something-vaguely-akin-to-glory transpire. My interest in running music has been directly proportional to the increasing length of the runs, which is one of the reasons IC readers are treated to the RunHundred top ten list every month. I haven’t jumped into the continuous mix boat yet, but Kitsuné Maison’s 12th compilation The Good Fun Edition is pretty close to one.
Kitsuné is an interesting story in itself: it’s a record label, music magazine and fashion store all at once, in addition to putting out compilations of electronic/dance music. The label roster boasts the excellent Two Door Cinema Club, as well as IC new faves Is Tropical. (Neither appear on this particular compilation, sadly.)
But plenty of other great tunes fill out the fifteen-track compilation: “Goose” by The Cast of Cheers takes a profoundly post-punk angle on dance music, providing a Bloc Party-esque indie rock extreme to the compilation. “Record Collection 2012 (Plastic Plates Remix)” by Mark Ronson and the Business Intl. and “Let’s Work” by White Shadow form the extreme end of the dance spectrum, as both are essentially clubby beats and melodies with minimal lyrics (and song structure) provided.
Tons of different angles on dance music fall in between those, like the Phoenix-goes-house genre mashup that is “Excuse Me” by Lemaitre (easily the most infectious track on the comp, as well as the most baffling). “Zimbabwe” by New Navy is all up in that post-disco/hipster-world-music groove. MuteMath is checking its discography to make sure it didn’t write “Closet Anonymous” by Man Without Country. There’s plenty of ’80s-inspired stuff, if you’re into that—although none of it reaches the transcendence of Chad Valley’s work.
If a good compilation is supposed to sound like a radio station that you don’t want to change, Kitsuné’s The Good Fun Edition is working exactly as it should. I expect nothing less from the compilation series that helped launch Icona Pop, although I don’t hear anything as immediately arresting as that find on this version. Still, the overall effect of the comp is impressive; you could leave this in your car and spin it for a long time without getting bored. And “Excuse Me” will most likely never get boring.
So, in addition to coming from a pop-punk background, I came from a Christian rock background. The weeping and the gnashing of teeth need not apply, because I was birthed on bands that actually did something meaningful with their careers: Relient K, Switchfoot, OC Supertones, and Earthsuit. I listened to a lot of other bands (Bleach in particular) in Christian rock, but those four names were meaningful outside of Christian rock circles (although the ‘tones were only big in ska circles, literally and metaphorically).
While Switchfoot went on to modern-rock fame and Relient K went into piano-pop-punk, Earthsuit broke up. And then they formed MuteMath, and left Christian rock.
This is distressing to me on many levels. One, it’s distressing that the remnants of what was probably the most creative Christian band of the past twenty years (no, really; Kaleidoscope Superior is earth-shatteringly, mind-bendingly good) abandoned the genre, but two, it’s distressing that there is a need to.
Christian rock has a problem. For several reasons, it’s just not as good as its secular brethren. It suffers from lowered expectations (“well, it’s just a cleaned-up version of real music, who would expect it to be good?”); too much focus on lyrics; less competitive market, letting less-talented work slip through; less critical audiences (audiences less interested in musical quality than moral quality); and many more. In short, people are rewarded (with listeners and money) for making music that wouldn’t cut it in the secular scene. And that lack of quality hurts the perception of Christian music, which hinders the possibility of any great Christian artists ever emerging. Which is distressing, because I like hearing people sing about things I like in a style I like. At this point, my chances of that happening are slim and falling.
This is not to say that there aren’t Christian bands putting out quality, quality work. Tooth and Nail keeps some great artists; Jonezetta is fantastic. Gotee harbors some talented musicians. But for the most part, stuff that gets played on Christian radio wouldn’t make it to modern rock radio (and with the state of our radio, that’s saying something).
Christians used to be on the cutting edge of art, science and thought. Now, we’re not. That’s a sad statement to me, and I wish that we could change it. Sufjan Stevens is working very hard to change this perception, as he is almost universally loved, and no one in their right mind would be able to listen to a Sufjan record without acknowledging that he must be a Christian. This is the way it should go; bands should strive to be the best band they can be in comparison to the secular market, and go from there. If I had my way, this distinction of “Christian music” wouldn’t exist, except for explicitly worship music, and perhaps CCM (which is, apparently, the distinction for Christian Adult Contemporary). It would just all be lumped in with your regular music, and the themes in the lyrics wouldn’t separate out the music into “secular” and “Christian.”
The whole idea that there is a Christian music scene is a tad ridiculous, but I’ll spare you the “you don’t see any Christian plumbers” shtick. I wish that MuteMath could have been in Christian music and respected as indie rockers; we’ll never know if they would have, had they tried it. But the odds were against them, so I don’t blame them for bailing. Christian market isn’t one for experimental indie-rock; their possibilities were limited (ever heard of the Myriad? I didn’t think so). They had to bail for the secular scene. And that makes me sad. Hopefully we have some more Sufjans make it in the indie-rock world, and make it safe to be unabashedly Christian again.
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.