1. “Saturday” – SPORTS. This evanescent (1:13!), earnest, perky garage-rock track hits all the right notes and touches a chord in me. It’s the perfect mix of enthusiasm and grit. Father/Daughter Records is on a roll.
2. “Vultures” – Delta Mainline. Call it Spiritualized at its most arch or acoustic-based ’90s Britpop (Oasis, The Verve) at its most early-morning woozy–this track is a memorable one.
3. “Wall Ball” – Art Contest. Any band that can make math-rock accessible and hooky is greatly to be praised. Art Contest’s impressive technical chops are only overshadowed by their incredible songwriting ones. This song is an adventure.
4. “There’s No Love” – We Are Magnetic. It’s summer, so I need a continuous stream of brash, upbeat dance-rock tunes. This one plays out like a less yelpy Passion Pit, complete with a giant chorus anchored by a soaring melody and backed with a choir. Get your dance on.
5. “Pistoletta” – North by North. Imagine My Chemical Romance had a little more rock and a little less theatrics, or think of late ’60s/early ’70s rock, right as glam was breaking out and wasn’t really there yet. Soaring vocals, rock drama, and crunchy guitars sell it.
6. “Get on the Boat” – Little Red Lung. This female-fronted outfit calls up Florence and the Machine comparisons through its adventurous arrangements (check that booming cello), minor-key vibes, and front-and-center vocals.
7. “Then Comes the Wonder” – The Landing. An ecstatic mishmash of handclaps, burbling synths, piano, and falsetto vocals creates a song that makes me think of a half-dozen disparate sonic influences (Foals, Prince, Fleet Foxes, and the Flaming Lips among them).
8. “Dust Silhouettes” – CFIT. Glitchy electro-pop noises give way to psych-influenced guitar and vocals, all stacked on top of an indie-rock backline. It’s a head-spinner in the best sort of way.
9. “Take Me Away” – Late Nite Cable. The chorus in this song is the electro-pop equivalent of the sun coming out from behind clouds after two days of rain.
10. “ONE” – Moving Panoramas. Sometimes I wonder what people are listening to when they’re walking down the street with headphones in. This feels like it could be one of those things: a walking-speed indie-pop-rock song with excellent bass work, down-to-earth vocals, and a little sense of wonder.
11. “Alien Youth” – The Albino Eyes. Calls back to the time when synth-rock meant The Cars: the zinging, charming synths over slightly-smoothed out garage-rock is nostalgic in the best of ways.
12. “Strangers” – Balaclade. Balancing guitar crunch with feathery vocals makes this an engaging post-’90s-indie-rock track.
13. “Falling” – Here We Go Magic. This warm, swirly, electronics-laden pop-rock tune calls to mind School of Seven Bells, if their sound was a little more tethered to acoustic instrumentation.
Some bands fit easily into categories, and some bands are Wall-Eyed. Kentucky Gentleman is a seven-song, half-hour blast of sound that combines garage rock, folk-punk, a nortena-style horn line, and cabaret pop (that piano intro to “Cold Black Ink”) into one brooding, foreboding experience.
It’s got punk energy, nasally vocals, and a textured approach to songwriting that goes completely against any stereotypes you might figure for the first two elements. Maybe it’s like a less-glam, more-folk version of My Chemical Romance, but I’m stretching here. Wall-Eyed’s well-developed sound is just tough to explain, which sucks if your job is putting that sound in words. It’s great, however, if you’re a listener interested in unique and interesting sounds.
Opener “Wise County” and follow-up “Cold Black Ink” set the darkly manic stage with performances fit for an alternate-universe version of Conor Oberst’s unhinged side. “Exile” flips the script and drops a perky alt-country tune that wouldn’t be out of place next to “Another Traveling Song” on I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. It even includes whistling! “I Want to Wreck Your Car” later returns to the major key in a ’50s-inspired pop song, but mostly Wall-Eyed wants to purvey tunes of grit and dusk here. And when you’re good at it, more power to you.
“Holy War” amps up the volume of the horn line and uses it as a blaring, stabbing hip-hop-style marching outfit. The whole song is built off the fat, staccato rhythms, giving the tune an inescapable swagger. It’s only 2:12, but you know it’s there for all 132 seconds. “Red Marks” follows it up, and it sounds like a murder ballad (!). The band ties it all together with closer “The Long Folk Revival”: five and a half minutes of booming arrangements, hectic vocals, and ominous vibes. It’s impressive.
Kentucky Gentleman is a release that is far more consistent than my ability to write about it would purport. These songs all hang together in a tight cohort: this is very much an album. Wall-Eyed has a unique sound that they’ve developed to a fine point here, and that pays off for them and the listener. If you’re into adventurous, seedy versions of Americana, you’ll be thrilled to hear Wall-Eyed.
Fairmont has been a part of Independent Clauses for almost as long as it’s been alive. Over those almost 10 years I’ve seen Fairmont transition from an acoustic-fronted indie-rock band to a theatrical power-pop band and back. In short, it’s been REM to My Chemical Romance to a Violent Femmes/Shins hybrid. That last one spot is where Fairmont currently sits with Live & Acoustic from the Forest of Chaos.
Leaning heavily on acoustic guitar, marimba, and male/female duo vocals, the New Jersey band remakes some of its tunes from the last few years in a chill, stripped-down style. They never lose the friction-energy that powers Neil Sabatino’s songs, but they do smooth out some of the rough edges that the tunes can get from a gritty guitar line or pounding drum kit. “Black Heart Burns” is a great example of their sound on this release, as Sabatino and co. create a sparse but engaged backdrop for the vocal duet to play over. The song is a little morose (re: title), but it never comes off as depressing or overtly navelgazing.
That trend continues throughout: the tunes are surprisingly light and sprightly for their heavy content. “Elephant” has a carnivalesque wonder to it; “King and Queen” is an upbeat song in a major key that will have you tapping your foot and loving the fact that this acoustic album includes marimba. “I Am the Mountain,” a favorite of mine, is just as catchy as in its electric form.
If you’re into acoustic-fronted indie-rock/indie-pop (and who isn’t, these days?), Fairmont’s in-studio live set (no applause, which made me breathe a sigh of relief) is a great way to spend 25ish minutes. Live & Acoustic from the Forest of Chaos drops 1/28.
The fourth and final chapter in Dr. Pants‘ huge songwriting project The Trip has arrived. Like any good conclusion, it is the strongest and most impressive of the entries; because Dr. Pants is a goofy power-pop band, it should not surprise you that the towering culmination of years of work is titled The Booty Impression. The combination of tried-and-true tactics with new avenues of exploration make this EP an absolute must for any fan of power-pop.
“S.W.E. (The Na Na Na Song)” is just as infectious as My Chemical Romance’s “Na Na Na (Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na)”; Dr. Pants’ onomatopoeia relies less on desperate fury and more on bouncy optimism. It’s in and out in 3:20: a fun pop song to its core. The tune introduces a religious turn for this project: “I see you on the water/I see you in your boat/I see the tempest rising/as you try and stay afloat.” The religious imagery continues to the mid-tempo “Maria”‘s four-minute duration.
I point out the lengths of tunes because the length really matters for the last two tunes here. “In the Name of the Lord” is a six-minute instrumental piece, while “The Trip” is ten minutes of power-pop (complete with vocals). “The Trip” has various movements in its duration, moving from crunchy power-pop to peppy acoustic pop to goofy nerd-rock back to Beach Boy-inspired indie-pop before it even reaches the halfway point. It’s one of the most fun songs I’ve heard all year. I know that this term has been largely robbed of its power, BUT SERIOUSLY, IT’S EPIC.
If “The Trip” dialed in the EP as a potential “best of year” pick, it’s “In the Name of the Lord” that really puts it over the top. It’s a surprisingly moving and melodic mash-up of the power-pop that the band is so good at and soaring post-rock. To explain it in words makes the band seem indulgent and does not get the point across: The song is beautiful and distinctly unique.
Power-pop is not often considered a genre that can take on projects of huge scope or experimental tunes. Dr. Pants has proved that the genre is versatile enough to encompass both of them, if the right amount of effort and talent is applied. The Trip, Side 4: The Booty Impression left quite a mark on this listener, and I suspect it will do the same for fans of power-pop everywhere.
The essays in Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs come off gleefully: even when discussing sordid or depressing material, there’s an underlying enthusiasm which I have chalked up to “WHOA, I GET PAID TO WRITE THIS!” His second collection of essays, Eating the Dinosaur, contains a larger number of memorable and insightful pieces than the first book, but it’s not as manic in its style. The excitement of the format has worn off, and now the arguments are foremost instead of the style. Eating the Dinosaur is better, but it’s not as much fun as the first one. This is very nearly the same situation that Cosmonauts find themselves in with The Demise of Daniel Raincourt.
The Cosmonauts’ previous EP The Disfiguration of Emily Malone established the central part of a story that the new one starts and finishes. Emily Malone is a hyperactive blast of My Chemical Romance-esque rock, complete with huge riffs and hooky vocal melodies. If it’s the middle of the story, then the whole tale is a crescendo to and decrescendo from the center: Daniel Raincourt is a more calculated, atmospheric take on Cosmonauts’ sound.
The five songs contained in this EP espouse songwriting that gives the instruments a great more breathing room. “The Slow Decay” has a preamble that goes on for 1:28; “Emily’s Surprise” is introduced by a forlorn guitar line and strings. The predominant emotion of the tunes is not adrenalized passion, but brooding.
The songs doesn’t stray too far from the previously established sound, but there’s a definite emotive shift that precludes the “BURYMEBURYMEBURYMEBURYME!” bravado of previous work. Even the upbeat Latin rhythms and sounds of “The Heritage Day Parade” manage to sound ominous (the roared vocals in this particular tune help, of course). This isn’t to say these songs don’t rock; it’s merely that the point of reference is different. These songs sound more like No Devolucion-era Thursday than MCR.
As a full album, the tunes of the previous EP would compliment these to complete a wide, satisfying range of moods. The idea of producing a concept album over three releases (two EPs and a vinyl) is the sort of ambition and forward-thinking that I love to see in bands; a) for even attempting a concept album, and b) for acknowledging the fact that distribution models are changing. This alone is enough to praise.
The songs deserve their props as well, especially the genre-morphing of “The Heritage Day Parade”; the growth in depth to Cosmonauts’ songwriting suggests a dedication to craft. Although I miss some of the ecstatic chord mashing of the previous EP, the change is good. Bands that change survive and thrive, while bands that stay static get tossed aside quicker than ever in this day and age. The Demise of Daniel Raincourt establishes Cosmonauts as a thoughtful, engaged rock band on both the musical and business fronts.
Chris North, who previously fronted folksters The Points North, has a new dream pop project under his own name called The Story of My Light. In a James Blake/Bon Iver synth-laden era of dreamy music, North sticks mostly to acoustic guitar and reverb (lots of echo) to achieve his intended mood.
He also breaks from the former pair by having a full, low voice that expresses in its cracks and breaks, not in falsetto warbling. The result is a 9-song, 25-minute collection that deftly balances the weightlessness of dream state with the heft of real instruments (saxophone on “Liberation Sound,” low flute on “Cold Company”). There are some ups and downs throughout the EP, as North doesn’t balance all the parts of the sound against his vocals perfectly yet, but the overall effect is good. An intriguing starting point for future releases.
I praised The Pizza Thieves‘ “Real American Boy” as a post-Pixies wonder, and their debut follows up on that promise. Hippopotamus employs skronked-out surf rock guitars, reverb, howling vocals, and propulsive drums to wrest a mighty, fidelity-irrelevant noise out of just two members. A surprising amount of keys and acoustic guitar (“Skeleton Bride,” “Run, Run, Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Rabbit Run!”) could point in a future direction, but the majority of this one is gleeful thrash and mash.
The amount you’ll enjoy Hippopotamus is directly proportional to how much of your listening time is spent to bands like Ty Segall and Thee Oh Sees; at 55 minutes, casual fans of surf-damaged garage rock will check out long before the 7-minute “Vitrification/Pt. 2” (check the intentional nod/debt owed to “Where is My Mind”) wraps up. But it’s a fun blast for as much as you can take.
I’ve been going through a personal pop-punk revival as of late, but I’ve found the outer extremes of what my current self enjoys in Stream City‘s Welcome Paramnesia. The hyperkinetic snare-drum gallop and mashing guitar strum that the band starts uses as a foundation is standard SoCal fare, but the Danish band incorporates touches of metal (“Shores of Lethe,” “Hello Gravity”), folky melodic interludes (“Paramnesia”), faux-Gothic harpsichord (“In Limbo”) and Irish/klezmer/old world traditional violin melodies (“Fisherman’s Tale”) to differentiate from other bands. The result is a varied six-song effort that plays out like a less-morbid AFI or a less drama-intensive My Chemical Romance at twice the speed.
With an EP named The Disfiguration of Emily Malone and tunes named “The Rapist of Hemingway Home,” “The Funeral of Allison J. Sherman,” and “The Lovers of Kerosene Lane,” you’d be forgiven if you think at first glance that Cosmonauts is some sort of brutal metal band. Instead, the band creates radio-perfect rock’n’roll that draws on the history of pop music and shares ideas with My Chemical Romance.
First things first: I really enjoy My Chemical Romance, so that’s praise in the previous paragraph. MCR does a great job of creating breakneck tunes that straddle the line between theatrical and over-the-top while crafting immediately memorable melodies. While Cosmonauts may have some room to grow in the “immediate melodies” category, everything else lines up neatly.
The four songs here are 25 minutes long, and the shortest of them is 4:51. The band has no censor, and that’s mostly for the better. Opener “The Rapist of Hemingway Home” is a distorted doo-wop tune, complete with soaring French horn in the non-chord-mashing parts. The title track is an AFI-esque soaring rocker, which fits them quite well.
But it’s in “The Lovers of Kerosene Lane” that the band excels. The nine-minute track has the most gripping melody of the batch, a motif that is repeated with multiple phrases (“Kerosene,” “Loving me,” “Burning me,” etc.). You will have it stuck in your head, don’t worry. It starts off with a punked-out MCR rager, but then drops into a piano waltz before jumping off to other things. Yes, the band has MCR’s love for unusual genres as well.
Cosmonauts’ vocals are high, but not boyishly high. The vocalist strikes a neat analogue to Gerard Way; the tenor tone is not quite as fervent, but tones of condescension and desperation are easily noted as similar.
These songs have a lot of stuff packed into them, and while Cosmonauts does stretch its chaos out over larger palettes than MCR (who usually pack their insanity into four minute chunks), there’s still enough whipsaw changes to make any fan of theatrical rock grin. If Cosmonauts could trim their song lengths a bit, they’d be a shoo-in on radio. This band is ready for the big time.
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.