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Tag: Neutral Milk Hotel

Shorthand Phonetics release talented pop with difficult vocals

My relationship with Shorthand Phonetics is somewhat complicated. That’s all right, though; almost all of Shorthand Phonetics’ lo-fi rock’n’roll proclaims the ins and outs of complicated relationships (or lack thereof).

See, Shorthand Phonetics always has and probably will always have an aesthetic that challenges listeners. Ababil Ashari, mastermind of Shorthand Phonetics, writes and plays with Jeff Mangum-esque disregard for other people’s conventions of what is good and not good. Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is Jeff Mangum’s masterpiece because it is a total, singular vision that no one else could possibly have put together. While Ashari’s works haven’t reached that level of mastery yet, each release of hyper-distorted, giddy, super-emotional, crazy-long-titled pop and rock’n’roll songs comes closer and closer to reaching perfect idiomatic success (perfect idiomatic success: in which it doesn’t really matter what everyone else is doing, because what the band is doing is so awesome. See also: The Format’s Dog Problems).

Errors in Calculating Odds, Errors in Calculating Value is by far the most unique release that Shorthand Phonetics has revealed yet. From songs whose full titles are 50 words long to ten-minute songs to Firefly and anime references, this album is a distinct vision from Ababil Ashari’s mind. The whole low-to-mid-fi thing is over an hour long, as no song drops below four minutes in length. Several run for more than six minutes.

The length is the ultimate problem with Errors. It’s not the length of any particular track that does it in, but this much Shorthand Phonetics is hard to take in one sitting. The songwriting is consistently good, although a bit abrasively recorded. It’s the high, occasionally grating vocals that get in the way. For a few songs, the unique and exciting epic power-pop covers the problem. But tracks like “To the Girl I Think Might be Similar to the Girl Flight of the Conchords Were Thinking About When They Were Writing “The Most Beautiful Girl (In the Room)”” just have grating, screechy vocal efforts that cannot be redeemed. It’s just too much to ask of listeners.

That being said, there are moments here that shine when pulled from the hour-plus context. “Fear and Loathing in Jikyoku-to” is one of the best songs that I’ve heard by SP (although I have by no means heard them all, as SP is quite prolific). Its riff and melodies are engaging, resulting in head-bobbing and much approval. That’s the primary thing that’s different about Errors: there’s a lot more headbobbing than rocking out. And that’s just fine, as tunes like “The Hardest Achievement” and “Fear and Loathing…” are excellent. The melodic solo intro to “Natalies for Glasses IV…” (which is the song with the fifty-word title that I’m not reproducing here) also is excellent, except for the untuned bass guitar in the back guitar (remember kids: lo-fi doesn’t have to mean sloppy).

To sum up this review: Ababil Ashari of Shorthand Phonetics is an incredibly talented pop songwriter recording in a low-fi manner with a voice that’s hard to take in large doses. In 1998, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats was an incredibly talented pop songwriter recording in a low-fi manner with a voice that was hard to take in large doses. Then he grew up some and became amazing. Not saying that’s the road that Shorthand Phonetics is going to take, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the next ten years produce some great stuff from Shorthand Phonetics. If you have a high tolerance for unusual vocals, then Errors is in your department.¬† If you don’t, then tune in to tomorrow’s review, in which you will receive a treat.

Glad Hearts release experimental folk with occasional flashes of delicate

Glad Hearts’ The Oak and the Acorn is a fascinating album. The band has a bevy of ideas, but treats each of them cursorily. There are thirteen tracks on this debut, but the whole album can be listened to in under a half hour. The release seems like an ADD tour of a band more than a proper album, but it’s an incredibly interesting tour nonetheless.

Glad Hearts’ basic sound is that of a folk band idolizing Neutral Milk Hotel. From the nasally vocals to the peculiar instrumental songs to mega distortion on some tracks to kitchen-sink jams (in terms of number of instruments), there are shades of NMH all over this. I don’t know if that’s coincidental or a result of much listening to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, but it’s there nonetheless.

And even that’s not all the experimentation Glad Hearts throws at their listeners. “Come July” features an ethereal percussion instrument in the background of a harmonica/acoustic guitar folk song. “I’m at Sea” is a thirty-second accordion spot that brings to mind Sufjan short tracks like “Let’s Hear That String Part Again, Because I Don’t Think They Heard It” and “One Last “Whoo-hoo!” for the Pullman,” both of which are exactly what their titles entail. It leads directly into the buzzing, slightly apocalyptic “Tinderbox.” That’s directly followed by a tune so bass-heavy and strumtastic that it’s nearly folk-punk on the merits of the bass guitar work alone. Glad Hearts aren’t making standard folk tunes; they’re going for a specific vision.

And that specific vision is pretty well established. It’s not accomplished (they have a long way to go before all of these ideas become an album; see also Enjoy Your Rabbit by Sufjan Stevens), but they definitely set out a roadmap for where they’re going. My only disappointment in all of this is that the undisputed best track on this album has almost no experimentation whatsoever.”Nothing If We’re Not Moving” is a unadorned, delicate duet between a guy and a girl. There’s guitar, some dainty piano, and an underlying synthesizer for the majority of the tune, which makes it the most standard of almost any track here. And yet, it’s the only one that demands to be replayed on its own. The album as a whole is worthy of repeated listens, but “Nothing…” is the only track that you’re going to push the back button on when it’s finished the first time.

What does that mean for Glad Hearts? I don’t know. It could mean that their next album is going to be stripped down, now that they’ve got their studio fix. It could be an anomaly on the radar, and the delicate romanticism could disappear forever. It could mean the two extremes are going to meet in the middle somewhere. All I know for sure is that “Nothing If We’re Not Moving” is the prettiest track here, and the experimentation everywhere else is incredibly interesting (if not always incredibly successful).

Glad Hearts’ The Oak and the Acorn is not a plug-and-play album. You’ll have to listen to it a couple times and get used to it. But it has treasure in it if you want to look for it. I hear a lot of promise in Glad Hearts, and look forward to seeing them hone their sound more, however it is they do that.

There's Folk and Punk in Clock Hands' Stranglehold

Clock Hands Strangle suffered from a peculiar syndrome when I was reviewing this album. I enjoyed this album so much that I put it in my car and started listening to it like I would if it were an album that I purchased from a record store. But when I do that, I don’t think about things like “when I need to have it reviewed by” and things of that nature. Hey, we’re definitely not pros here at IC. Only here will producing a fantastic album actually delay your review. Sorry.

But Disticatti is an incredible album that deserves the words I’m about to lavish on it. It’s a folk/punk album, and the punctuation is chosen particularly. It’s not folk-punk, where the folk has a whole lot of punk strumming and attitude (O Death comes to mind) or folk punk, which is a punk band playing folk instruments (The Violent Femmes, for example). This is a band that plays folk and punk in equal measure.