Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

ICYMI: MD Woods / Gregory Pepper / Tyto Alba

November 17, 2015

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MD Woods‘ Young and Vain, Vol. 2 may describe the lifestyles of characters with the titular qualities, but it approaches the studies from a world-weary perspective instead of an impetuous one. The alt-country band, led by the whiskey-soaked voice of Nicholas Moore, comes off desperate and ragged in its moods, like Damien Rice on the alt-country frontier. It should be noted that these are strictly compliments: tunes like “Vomit” make being emotionally wracked seem like a noble idea, if not a desirable one. The melodies are compelling, the lyrics are tight, and the song styles are varied–there’s definitely a lot going on despite the general timbre of the lyrics.

The arrangements compliment the emotional damage by being surprisingly tight: from background vocals to swooping strings to rock-steady drums, the band provides a framework for Moore to get unhinged in. The bright, clear recording and engineering make the final product more accessible, providing a clean window to see the band through. The results are compelling mix of major key and minor key tunes that you can sing along to and enjoy in a Frightened Rabbit sort of way.

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It’s easy to put Gregory Pepper‘s Chorus! Chorus! Chorus! in the ICYMI category, because if you blink you’ll miss it: Pepper blitzes through 10 songs in under 14 minutes. This uncommonly aggressive approach to the “hit it and quit it” songwriting mentality creates an album of perfect melodies that appear once or twice, lodge in your brain forever, and then disappear into the next tune. The post-Weezer pop-rock that blazes its way through your eardrums is undeniably, irresistibly pristine: “Crush On You” and “Smart Phones for Stupid People” are fuzzed-out midtempo glory; “There In The Meadow (Was I Not a Flower At All​?​)” is a pseudo-metal pop-rock stomper; “Come By It Honestly” is an “Only in Dreams”-esque slow jam and the longest tune on the record, tipping the scales at 1:40.

But it’s not all Weezer-esque crunchy guitars. Pepper has an idiosyncratic vocal and melodic sensibility that delivers highly sarcastic and ironic lyrics in an earnest pop-rock style reminiscent of It’s a King Thing, only without the breathy sweetness. Pepper is singing straightforward melodies that still manage to bend my mind, as the endlessly fascinating, gymnastic opener “Welcome to the Dullhouse” shows. But it’s not enough to just create wild melodies, clever tunes and ironic lyrics: occasionally all the sarcasm drops and reveals pretty raw honesty as an extra layer to the tune (“I Wonder Whose Dick You Had to Suck?,” “There In The Meadow (Was I Not a Flower At All​?​)”). It’s a lot to ride on songs that barely (or don’t) break 60 seconds, but Pepper masterfully handles the incredible amount of things going on. It’s not easy to edit yourself down to the bare bones and still deliver a multi-layered experience that’s both fun and deep, but Chorus! Chorus! Chorus! is that rarest of albums that pulls it off. If you’re into indie-pop-rock, you need this one in your life.

tytoalba

I try to keep up with what’s cool in indie rock so that I’m not constantly namechecking the Hives and Death Cab for Cutie, but keeping up with what’s going on in alt-rock is way harder for me. As I was casually reading through Spin’s (biased, subjective, etc.) list of 50 best rock bands right now, I was pleasantly surprised to see Paramore up at number 9. I thought they had been lumped in with Flyleaf as lame, but I was wrong! (Is Flyleaf cool?) Which is great, because I feel totally guiltless comparing Tyto Alba’s Oh Tame One EP to a more mood-heavy Paramore. Melanie Steinway’s vocals soar and roar in front of an alt-rock backdrop that isn’t as gritty as everyone’s favorite indie grunge band Silversun Pickups (check the arpeggiated guitar on “Passenger”) but isn’t as post-rock-flavored as bands like Athletics.

Instead, they prefer to mix artsy rhythms and nuanced guitarscapes with rock song structures: “Deer” mixes a carefully patterned rhythm guitar line with a moseying lead guitar line that echoes back to The Photo Album-era Death Cab before exploding into guitar theatrics for the chorus (of sorts). The careful picking of the lead guitar line in “Divide” juxtaposes with groove-heavy bass and drums (but not as dance-tastic as in standout “New Apathy,” which is simply impressive) before building into the most memorable chorus on the EP, driven by multiple vocal melodies interacting. It’s the sort of work Tyto Alba excels at: twisting your expectations of what a rock song should do without totally overhauling the model. If you’re into thoughtfully distorted guitars with some groove-heavy elements, Oh Tame One will fit nicely in your collection.

Jenny Ritter was Raised by Wolves

October 29, 2015

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If I were to describe Jenny Ritter’s breakout album Raised by Wolves in one word, it would have to be layering. Over and over again, I kept noticing the many magnificent layers to her music–the vocal, instrumental, and lyrical layering.

Let me begin by first painting a portrait of Jenny Ritter’s voice. To begin, think of Paramore’s Hayley Williams’ voice, particularly in her more delicate tracks, such as “The Only Exception.” The strong softness of Hayley Williams’ voice in those quieter songs are much like Jenny Ritter’s voice. Now add a more motherly, storytelling quality similar to many female ‘90s country artists, minus the country twang. There you have it–a beautiful sopranic voice that maintains both sweetness and strength. Many of the songs build off her crisp voice. Others have additional harmony vocals which serve to add depth (“A History of Happiness,” “Turn Your Thoughts”).

The instrumentation of Raised by Wolves is what made me fall in love with the album. There is so much instrumental layering, I almost can’t handle how amazing it is. Take “Turn Your Thoughts,” for example. In it, Ritter provides the vocal melody, while Keenan Lawler joins in to serve as the vocal harmony. The instruments can be described in those terms as well. “Turn Your Thoughts” opens up with the drums and acoustic guitar providing the melody. The electric guitar, fiddle, steel guitar, and banjo all fill out the sound through adding harmony. Sometimes this occured in the form of awesome breakout solos such as seen with the fiddle and electric guitar. The instrumentation is so great that it can stand all on its own, as proved by the instrumental track “Slide Mountain.” “Slide Mountain” has a slightly darker sound from the rest of the album because of the addition of the double bass, which adds a lot of depth to the sound. The instrumental layering creates a very full sound for all of the tracks on the album.

Jenny Ritter’s lyrics remind me of someone I once reviewed, Paul Doffing. Both artists focus heavily on nature and mankind’s relationship with nature. Take the single “Wolf Wife”: Ritter’s lyrics speak more depth than what is on the surface. She uses this metaphor of being a “wolf wife” because she was “raised by wolves,” yet there seems to be a larger commentary about family and societal expectations underneath the nature-focused lyrics.

“Remember the Life” is a beautiful song, and the lyrics are particularly majestic. At the song’s chorus, Ritter posits the first time around that “we should go out and see the stars right now.” The second time she says, “we should go out on the sea right now.” The third time she replaces the stars and sea with, “on the hill right now.” Each time the lyrics are followed up by “remember the life that we want to live.” Experiencing nature in a real way has a tendency to revitalize our life and remind us what it is really about.

In Raised by Wolves, Jenny Ritter reminds what life is all about– beauty.–Krisann Janowitz

MP3s: Down Down

April 11, 2015

Down Down

Grainy” – Cotton Claw. You know that scene in action movies where the spy is in a club, and then he spots his guy, and then a noir-ish chase scene through a dark, glamourously-lit urban landscape erupts without the music changing all that much? Plug and play.

Rooftops” – Sick of Sarah. Is it a dis to say someone sounds like Paramore these days? If not, the confident vocals and tight dance-rock beats makes this tune sound like an enthusiastic Paramore club remix. If yes, this sounds nothing like that at all.

No Exit” – Nightmare Fortress. Dry industrial beats meet round, warm synths and biting alto female vocals; it’s oddly accessible.

Broken Angels” – Jade the Moon. Other than the wub in the bass, this is a vocals-heavy, female-fronted mid-tempo club banger from the ’90s. (That’s totally great with me.)

Raincoats” – Maribou State. Got me wondering: what’s the politically correct term for Tribal House these days?

Enchanteresse” – Scattered Clouds. Dissonant, disorienting flashes of guitar lightning crash on an ominous plateau of baritone speak/sing vocals and plodding bass. For fans of apocalyptic post-rock.

State of Low” – Cajsa Siik. I know this sort of delicate, feminine indie-electro-pop existed before I heard Frou Frou on the Garden State soundtrack, but I can’t escape thinking about Imogen Heap’s vocals whenever something this light (yet dark, always dusk where they are) appears.

Lost” – Zohara. An unusual fusion of pop chanteuse vocals, dissonant orchestration, and pleasant piano produces an enigmatic, interesting track.

Forest Fires” – Axel Flóvent. If you’re the sort of person who longs for winter as soon as it gets warm, this acoustic- and piano-laden track will give you all the snowy-cabin-folk chills you need to get you through the hard months.

True Colors” – Johanna Warren. Surprisingly technical guitar playing gets matched with calming vocals and very serious arrangements of piano and flute. This results in a tune that is both calming and unsettling.

Corrin Campbell shows versatility in modern rock and pop

July 12, 2010

It’s a good time for women in rock. Paramore is having enormous success, Flyleaf is rockin’ it, and many more women in rock are coming out of the woodwork. Corrin Campbell is one of those.

The best moments of Campbell’s Game Night come when her vocals and songwriting style fall firmly in the arena with Paramore and Flyleaf’s melodic heavy rock. She does have some passable lighter material where she plays keys, but the best work is when she picks up her bass and rocks out. “Sunbeam”  channels Muse, opener “Find Your Way” has an Evanescence feel (remember them?), and “Always Be” feels like a heavier Kelly Clarkson.

Of the lighter stuff, “Remember Me” has a nice driving vibe, and “A New Page” is pretty, but the rock songs make a more consistent impression. Her voice fits over the keys nicely, in a very different way than her voice fits over the rock songs, which is a nice surprise. It’s good to hear a voice with versatility.

Corrin Campbell’s Game Night is a solid effort that establishes Campbell as a songwriter with a lot of room to grow in any direction. She could choose rock or mellow pop and run with it for a very solid collection of songs. She just needs to choose where she wants to go and go there.  Recommended for fans of rock bands with girl singers.

Absinthe Junk combines modern rock, world music and powerful female vocals

March 21, 2010

Sometimes a band comes along that’s really good and I just don’t like very much for personal reasons. I call it my Dave Matthews Syndrome. I can acknowledge that Dave Matthews is a talented musician, but I very much do not like his music. It’s not interesting to me, despite my many friends who enjoy it and play me acoustic covers of his songs while we’re sitting around hanging out.

Absinthe Junk is one of those bands, and the reason I don’t like it is because of the female vocalist. I don’t like female vocalists in rock music, for whatever reason. I’m not saying women shouldn’t be in rock, nor that they can’t be excellent rock stars. I’m saying that I dislike frontwomen. Millions of people love Flyleaf and Paramore; I hold nothing against the fans or the bands. I just don’t like it.

On that note, it must be noted that fans of Flyleaf and Paramore will also be great big fans of Absinthe Junk. Absinthe Junk’s Living Ghosts rocks out hard in the modern rock vein, giving lead singer Blair (just Blair, in true rock star form) the platform to make a mark for herself in the pantheon of women rock vocalists. And she makes the best of it, turning out blistering performances where needed (“Commercialized Waste,” “Swear to Me,” “Sweet Vaccine”), slow-burning performances (“Precious Delirium”), or no performance (the instrumental freak-out “Road to Damnation,” dreamy “Living Ghosts”). Her powerful voice carries the sound and makes the band what it is.

The band is no slouch either, led by Blair’s violin-playing chops toward distinctly non-American tones in their music. “Road to Damnation” makes modern rock with Celtic and Middle Eastern overtures in the same tune. That’s impressive.  “Rust” combines those Middle Eastern sounds with brittle electronic sounds and charging riffs. Instrumental title track “Living Ghosts” further explores sounds from the Arab world.

And they do all this while playing tight, well-recorded modern rock. The production values on this disc are immaculate, which helps out the songs. If not recorded as confidently and perfectly as they are, this might sound campy or weird. But it all works perfectly, going off without a hitch.

If you’re a fan of modern rock, this is definitely up your alley. Flyleaf and Paramore fans should take note as well. It’s definitely good.

Play the Angel plays perfect radio rock

February 14, 2010

Ever since Nirvana became the world’s most prestigious rock band by playing distorted pop songs, the line between pop and rock has been blurred. To me, it’s pretty much an attitude at this point. Modest Mouse is a rock band, mostly because they sneer at anything and everyone who doesn’t fit into their ideas of the way things should be. Even though Three Days Grace, Hinder, and even Nickelback play “rock’n’roll” by modern standards, they are pop bands. They are pop bands because they act like preening pop stars and not like rock stars (i.e. hedonistic excess does not a rock band make).

Play the Angel is one of the best pop bands I’ve heard in years. They play “rock” by the radio’s standards, but they don’t have any of the attitude of a rock band. And that’s a good thing, because they embrace their pop star aesthetics and give the people what they want. There are five songs on this EP: straightforward rock’n’roller, major-key powerballad, dance-rock tune, whoa-oh pop-punk tune, and Gavin DeGraw-style emotive piano ballad. They have real names, of course, but they each fit excellently into their own radio niche. “So what?” you say. “Bands do that crap all the time.”

Yeah, they do, but they do one of the genres better than the other. Play the Angel does all five right. They could release every song off this EP as a radio single and, with proper label backing, they would have five number one hits. Their songwriting is just that good. Their vocalist has an incredibly appealing voice that’s a tad lower than Tyson Ritter of the All-American Rejects but just as emotive. Their production values are pitch-perfect. The band knows when to get out of the way of the vocals and when to crash in for the emotional payoff. Play the Angel does everything right.

If you like anything on rock radio right now, from Fall Out Boy to Hinder to Panic! at the Disco to Paramore to All-American Rejects and anything in between, you’re going to absolutely fall in love with Play the Angel. I don’t have a clue why this band hasn’t shot to the top of the charts yet. They’ve got every piece of the puzzle in line. They just need to see the right guy at the right gig who turns them into mega-stars. Cause, geez, they’re infinitely better than Nickelback. And that crap still sells millions. Again, if you turn on the radio and like anything you hear, Play the Angel is there for you. It’s that good.

TyLean makes discomforting, experimental, dark music

February 10, 2010

Things I am a fan of: concept albums, found sound, cello, piano, non-linear songwriting, operatic vocals, dark moods. Things I am not a fan of: extreme dissonance, instrument abuse, amelodic songs. TyLean’s Between 10 and 2 features all of those things, and thus I am somewhat conflicted on what I think of the release.

TyLean fashions herself as a vocalist, “pianist,” and cello rapist. These are all very self-aware descriptions. Her strength lies in her vocals, which are operatic and intense. Her skill as a pianist is difficult to discern, but it’s definitely creepy throughout. And as for the cello raping, I’m not sure you’ve ever heard anything exactly like “Rosalyn.” I know I haven’t heard anything quite as creepy and eerie come out of a cello. There’s lots of scraping, creaking and painful sounds accompanying a tune about a serial killer (or a dream about a serial killer?).

This is extremely experimental music. If you like dissonant, artsy, horror-inspired music, Between 10 and 2 will satisfy your desires to the extreme. If you wish Evanescence was a horror-punk band, or that Paramore was more like Psycho and less like Twilight, then TyLean is also your girl. There’s not a tune here that doesn’t just ooze creepiness. And for some, that’s awesome. As for me, I prefer not to be discomforted by the music I listen to.

Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.

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