Louis Landry‘s JJ vs. the Digital Whaleis, in a word, ambitious. The album re-situates the story of Jonah from “its roots in Christian, Jewish and Islamic culture” and comments on the “constant barrage of electronics, media, and technology which surround us all” by interpreting all of that as the whale. (The press also mentions Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi and Pink Floyd’s Animals as RIYLs.) So right off the bat, there’s points for conceptual boldness from this corner. The album that results is a largely major-key indie-rock festival that incorporates an incredible amount of sounds and instruments.
By pointing this out as a rock opera, it leaves the standard bounds of reception: JJ vs. The Digital Whale is held together by a repeated motif, the overarching story, and a spirit of adventure instead of any dedication to a stable genre. “Ride the Whale” has some Prince-ian funk going on; “Nothing No One Nowhere Blues” is a grumbling, stomping delta blues; “Ismi Azum” is a near-ambient instrumental rumination that fuses acoustic and electronic; “YOU’VE GOT eWHALE” is a marching, instrumental theatrical reminiscent of (yep!) Yoshimi. It wouldn’t be complete without a sea shanty, so “Ribs and Terrors” gives us a duet between a traditional accordion and a wiry synth before Landry’s voice comes in.
The remarkable thing about JJ is that even though the album has wide-ranging interests, the album never goes awry. Landry is able to corral all the sounds into the sonic framework he’s developed. Now, it’s weird, but it’s a rock opera about a modern re-telling of an ancient tale as understood by our current electronic issues. This never had a small horizon. By the time “Sunbound” rolls around, a six-minute slow-building acoustic-based indie-rock tune with a backing choir, nothing seems out of place at all. If you’ve got an adventurous streak and appreciate musicians with big ideas, then Louis Landry’s JJ vs. the Digital Whale will be right up your alley.
Kris Orlowski references Jonah as well in “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” the opener on The Gershwin Sessions Vol. 1. After that Porgy and Bess tune, folkie-turned-indie-pop/indie-rock musician Orlowski focuses his attention on Gershwin’s love songs in this loving tribute to the early 1900s songwriter best known for Rhapsody in Blue.
The six-song collection treats these tunes with piety, largely retaining their form, structure and vibe (particularly in the strings). The update lies in Orlowski’s voice and delivery, as well as the inclusion of guitar in the largely piano-driven originals. Orlowski’s confident tenor gives a warm sheen to these tunes, and the guitar contributes a modern vibe that pushes against the romantic strings in a productive tension. Those smart touches combine with the rest of the arrangements to create tunes that are both clever and honest: the material never strays too far from the source, but these songs feel differentiated enough to justify their existence. The biggest difference comes in closer “Things Are Looking Up,” which features a much sparser arrangement than the rest. The subtle motion of a gentle electric guitar strum and the engineering of the bass push this in a more modern pop direction, which is just lovely. Elsewhere, “Love Walked In” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It” are particularly neat. If you’re a fan of the old and the new, Orlowski has implicitly promised more than one collection of this work–get excited.
Carly Comando‘s Dreamlifehas two settings: slow and fast. The instrumental pianist best known for the deeply moving “Everyday” offers tunes that have rushes of single-note runs, rapid patterning, and arpeggiation (“Daydream,” “Dragonfly”) alongside those that go for the more stately emotions (“Procession,” “Birthday”).
The former are charged with excitement and passion, as they sound like running, leaping, and playing. The more solemn tunes are less immediate, as they are less similar to pop songs and more like classical compositions. The best side of her work comes out when both the gravitas and the enthusiasm come out at once, as in the middle of “Daydream” and the entirety of “Dusk.” Comando augments fluttering synth patterns with a heavy left hand on the bass piano keys to create a unique tension. The song builds and flows with the two vibes working together to create something larger than both. It’s in that melding that Carly Comando’s unique strengths as a composer are shown. This is beautiful, evocative, powerful music–you’ll be hearing this in places you don’t expect for years to come, so jump on it now and have the surge of recognition at movie trailers and advertisements of the future.
You know that mysterious kid you were secretly envious of that ate lunch by himself and had an original identity in only middle school? Yeah, Prinzhorn Dance School is that kid. And in just six songs, Home Economicspacks a quick, concise punch of raw, stripped-down indie rock that rumbles, moves like machinery, and yet candidly reveals tender, easygoing realness.
“Tears snaking down your skin/Do you feel lonely?” begins “Reign,” which suggests impending gloom, but trickles into affection over a steady, sparse beat and trancey, hollow guitar. “Reign” then shapeshifts into something bluesy and fluid, leaving me thirsty for more and unable to get this track out of my head. It’s of the indie-rock-star-cowboy category, but with enough mechanical clicking and clanking to keep that dankness thriving.
Home Economics lacks frivolous noise, only using sounds that best accentuate each other. This is exemplified on “Battlefield,” where a rat-a-tat beat pelts like a battle drum and guitar lines splinter the sonic wartime scene like lightning on the horizon. “Look at me predator/Look at me predator/Our lives are entwined,” the two talk back and forth with one another; this ping-ponging conversation seems to only heighten the instrumentals.
On “Education,” rallying-cry vocals are underscored by the grounding weight of heavy indie rock percussion and guitar. The duo proclaims that there’s something to be learned in everyday common circumstances (“education in the cry and bleed”). With its revolution-inspiring slogans and kickass vibe, “Education” could be a modern take on Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall.”
But not every track appeals to our inner rebel. Lavender-colored cheeriness presents itself beautifully on “Clean” and “Let Me Go,” where subtly youthful and buoyant pop-punk qualities give it a nostalgic ‘90s American band feel. On “Clean,” instrumentals wash over the vocals like soft guitar is the cleansing agent. “Put your head out the door and smell the rain/Put your head out into the storm and start again” are the most hopeful lyrics on this album. “Clean” is easy, breezy, naturally radiant; the fresh-washed linen of the record. “Let Me Go” has similar building optimism, singing about “a love that won’t rewind and will not be deleted” – a line that sticks with you just as much as the song’s blushed-cheeks-and-single-raised-eyebrow mood.
Prinzhorn Dance School’s Home Economics is a brazen, no-frills record that sizzled off any slivers of fat, leaving only a crispy, minimalist album. Wiry guitar riffs and punchy rhythms show the duo’s trademark spiky, stark nature, but their newfound warmth hooks you with its surprisingly twangy guitar lines and stirring vocals. Suddenly, you wished you sat with that mysterious quiet kid. —Rachel Haney
Classic-rock new kids Greylag, who have a single that you should listen to, put together a Spotify playlist of songs that influence them. The concept in itself is pretty cool, but their list is even cooler: aside from obvious influences Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, they’ve got Sonic Youth, Cocteau Twins and Kurt Vile. Get hip, y’all.
Singer/songwriter Stephen Kellogg is doing a PledgeMusic campaign to fund a four-album cycle based on the four cardinal directions. I’m all for ambitious projects and crowdfunding, so go jump on it.
The diverse Mint 400 Records, home of the band I manage, just released a free tribute to Lou Reed. You can download the short EP by clicking on this link.
A deluxe edition of Songs: Ohia’s Didn’t It Rain is getting a Nov. 11 release from Secretly Canadian. As a fan of Jason Molina’s work, this is exciting to me. Even more exciting is the new song released in celebration of the event, “Ring the Bell – Working Title: Depression No. 42.”
I’ve spent a lot of time and thought on what Independent Clauses should be. It’s gone through many iterations, and I’ve been realizing over the past two months that it’s about to go through another. I’ve always wanted to be the first line of defense for young bands: I’ll review your album if you have zero press, bad spelling and a 3-song demo. If it’s great, it’s great. If it’s not, I’ll tell you what I thought and hopefully you don’t think I’m a jerk. That’s been SOP for IC since day one.
But back in the day, I thought I could do that for every genre. That’s just entirely unfeasible. I can’t be knowledgeable at every style of music. I may like a couple hardcore and metal bands, but I have no idea what makes them good other than the fact that I enjoy it. Even if I heard a great unsigned metal band, I would have little idea how to describe it (and even less clue about RIYLs), because I don’t know the ins and outs of metal.
This is true for me of rap, metal, hardcore, modern rock/post-grunge, blues and jazz. I like a bit of each (K’Naan, Isis, Dillinger Escape Plan, Traindodge, The Flavor and John Coltrane, for starters), but I just feel unqualified to review it. So I’m pretty much going to stop reviewing those genres and focus in on folk, alt-country, indie-pop, indie-rock and post-rock. I’m taking a break from punk so that I can love it again in the near future.
The reason I bring this up is that The Boxing Lesson falls on the outskirts of my knowledge, just on this side of the border. I don’t listen to much psychedelic music, partially because I’ve never had the desire to be high. I say “much” because The Flaming Lips are Oklahoma’s rock heroes, and I listen to their music almost de facto.
The Boxing Lesson has the space-rock/psych thing going on its Muerta EP. “Darker Side of the Moog” features synths galore in a sweeping, atmospheric way. The song transforms into a slow-moving but cohesive bit of pop-influenced songwriting; it’s not exactly go-for-the-hook songcraft, but the melodies are recognizable to those who love a v/c/v setup (me). “Muerta” and “Cassiopeia” are much the same, calling up some Pink Floyd references in their expansive, slow-moving folds.
Closer “Drone to Sleep” is most like a pop song, in that fuzzed out guitar strum and a dominant vocal melody carry the song. It’s still got the synths and spaced-out vibe; its woozy self will definitely still to the core demographic of psych-heads. But people who enjoy meandering pop and folk will find much to love in the track. It really does make me want to go to sleep as the sound washes over me, in a Spiritualized sort of way. It’s kind of like Jonsi, honestly – and that’s really cool. It’s easily my favorite track on the EP.
So, I’m not the best guy to be evaluating The Boxing Lesson, and I’m not too proud to admit it. But it does have some elements that can be appreciated by all — and that’s the mark of great songwriting.
The best artists have distinct phases of their work. Some confine their phase to a single album (i.e. Coldplay), a few albums (Radiohead), wide swaths of albums (The Mountain Goats). Some artists jam all of their phases together (uh, Low Anthem? Are you a rock band or a folk band?).
Gerard Daley, longtime member of The Stuntcar Drivers and Delta House (two bands I’ve never heard), decided to release all of his solo demos from a nine-year period on one CD and call it Diff’rent States. The overlying problem is not his songwriting skill, but the fact that there are an incredible amount of genres and moods on this CD. It’s very clearly a collection of demos. For a person who doesn’t have a love affair with either of the main bands, it’s difficult to muster up enough enthusiasm to power through the myriad of mood changes to make sense of the material.
And I do mean myriad. There’s Counting Crows-esque pop (“Diff’rent States”), a downtempo Pink Floyd-esque number (“Romantic”), punk rock with shoegaze-style vocals (“Superstar”), folky protest tunes (“Stranded Generation”), and a pensive acoustic guitar track with the sound of the waves playing through the entire track. That’s just the first five tracks.
The three things that are constant on Diff’rent States are Daley’s prowess with an acoustic guitar, his lyrical themes and his vocals. Whenever he drops the distortion and goes for the acoustic, his results are solid and enjoyable. His distorted tracks can not consistently lay claim to that honor. From the dramatic beginning of “Buildings” to the romantic “My Lady” to the full-band folk of “The Wrongness of Righteousness,” the results of the acoustic-heavy tracks are just more reliably good than their distorted brethren.
The lyrics are consistently searching throughout. He talks consistently about seeking out truth, understanding what he believes, and questioning perceptions. It’s a refreshing change from breakup albums and love songs, which is what I’ve been encountering tons of lately. Not that there aren’t love songs here (the aforementioned “My Lady”), but it’s not the main focus. And that’s nice.
Daley’s vocals are consistent as well. He has a folk-singer’s voice; it breaks, it cracks, and it generally isn’t perfect. If you’re into the Bob Dylan sound, you may even find Daley’s vocals endearing. If you think that Bob Dylan was one of the worst things to happen to pop music (and there are those people), you should not check out Daley. You will not be pleased.
Diff’rent States is the type of release I would be all over if one of my favorite bands released it. Nine years of unheard demos is just a treasure chest of unheard ideas. But if you’re not familiar with the original work that made the artist worth listening to in the first place, it’s like looking in someone’s attic to try to get to know them. It doesn’t make much sense. There are some good tunes here (“Stranded Generation,” “Forgotten How to Fake” and more), but it’s just hard to “get” it.
The Boxing Lessonclaims to be from Austin, Texas (and I guess I believe them), but they sound like they’re from outer space. The group’s latest album, Wild Streaks & Windy Days, establishes a psychedelic, dreamy sound that remains consistent throughout.
The opening track of the album is titled “Dark Side of the Moog” – a funny name for an otherwise serious song. Paul Waclawsky’s guitar riff is head-bangable, and Jaylinn Davidson’s moog playing gives the song its otherworldly feel. The driving beat (provided by Jake Mitchell) adds a heavier rock flavor that makes this song a strong opener. Surely, there must be aliens somewhere out there, doing drugs or dancing (or both) to “Dark Side of the Moog.”
“Hopscotch & Sodapop” has the biggest pop influence on Wild Streaks & Windy Days, which is unsurprising when taking the song title into account, and therefore stands out compared to the rest of the album. It doesn’t differ too much, however, because the guitar and synthesizers keep the mood psychedelic. There is also a breakdown moment in the middle, where the fast tempo slows down a bit; this sounds more like the rest of Wild Steaks & Windy Days.
“Hanging with the Wrong Crowd” and “Dance with Meow” both have an electronica/dance feel, but, again, they still fit nicely with the other songs on the album. Probably the strongest aspect of this release from The Boxing Lesson is their ability to blend several different styles with their own predominant genre of space-rock. As a result, the album has enough diversity to be interesting, but is also very cohesive.
Waclawsky’s vocals really shine in “Wild Streaks & Windy Days,” the last track. Its slow tempo gives him a chance to show off his clear, high voice, and it also makes this song sound a little like Sigur Rós. Overall, this album is recommended for Pink Floyd fans, or for astronaut-wannabes. The Boxing Lesson is currently on tour, and is coming at The Opolis next week, for all you Normanites.
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.