1. “Red Road” – Trevor Green. It’s hard for me to resist an uplifting, hopeful, fingerpicked folk tune sung in an earnest, clear voice.
2. “Shade in the Shadow” – Dan Lipton. Evocative and cinematic without piling on the instruments, Lipton’s story-song here reaches into the folk tradition for its lyrical and musical genesis (but never feels derivative).
3. “Love Sweet Love” – Taylor Grey. Fun folk pop a la The Lumineers, Twin Forks, and the like, with a female vocalist: prepare for “whoa-oh”s, romantic lyrics, and lots of strumming.
4. “Untethered” – Halcyon Drive. Quirky, affected electro-pop with some crunch amid the smile-inducing pop.
5. “Everyone Wants to Love You” – Japanese Breakfast. This is just an amazing pop song. It sounds like it should already be on classic rock radio and permanently in our subconscious memories.
6. “Warpaint On” – Risley. It’s a tough thing to achieve gravitas, but this indie-rock tune has an emotive gravity to it that makes it hard to stop listening to. The sounds are modern, but it’s got the sort of weight that early ’00s indie-rock (Shins, Death Cab, Modest Mouse) had.
The mix of an album can tell you a lot about the priorities of its creators. Dylan Dickerson’s frantic, fractured voice is cranked about as high in the mix of Dear Blanca‘s Pobrecito as possible, which tells me that they care about the raw, ragged, real aspects of performance. Look no farther than the wordless, anguished roar that is the chorus of “Showplace” for proof. The intense alt-country songwriting behind the pipes matches Dickerson’s careening, manic vocal quality. In other words, Conor Oberst and Dickerson would have plenty to talk about.
But like Bright Eyes, Dickerson and co. aren’t all raging fury. The (relatively) pensive “Noma” includes a musical saw that gives the tune a Neutral Milk Hotel feel (Mangum, of course, being another vocalist who celebrated the rough edges of his non-traditional voice). Dickerson can write a pop song, too: “Huff” has a great guitar riff and a (relatively) restrained vocal performance. But it’s loud, noisy alt-country rock that is his natural home, which is why even the rhythmically tight, acoustic-led “Priscilla” turns into a torrent of guitar distortion and a repeated hollering of the titular character’s name in the chorus. Closer “Cadmus” starts off quiet with acoustic guitar, organ, and female vocals before introducing pounding toms into the tune. Hey, if you’re good at a thing, do that thing.
You like the stomping work of the Drive-By Truckers? Dear Blanca is like the Drive-In-And-Stay-In-Your-Front-Yard-Yelling-Until-You-Come-Out Truckers. Pobrecito is a sweat-drenched, passionate, powerful set of noisy alt-country tunes that will occasionally give you shivers.
The mid-’00s were a good time for indie-pop music, with bands like Annuals, Decemberists, Grandaddy, and the Shins purveying a very particular type of giddy, instrument-stuffed pop music that wasn’t being well-represented on the radio. Koria Kitten Riot picks up that torch of shiny, acoustic-led, maximalist indie-pop on Rich Men Poor Men Good Men. It’s the sort of album that includes coconuts imitating horse clip-clops in a way that sounds totally natural (“The Lovers That You’ve Never Had”). It’s twee without being overly cute in the vocals, or serious vocals with a whimsical touch to the arrangements.
“A Last Waltz” stands out as one of the highlight tracks not because it’s particularly more charming that the rest of the tunes here, but because it’s a touch darker. The rest of the album can flow together as one wonderful experience, but track three points itself out as a great track by showing the diversity the band is able to deliver (while still not damaging the flow of the record). “Today’s Been a Beautiful Day” nicks not only the sound but the joyful irony of the era, pairing one of the most chipper melodies and arrangements on the record with a song about a person who gets hit by a car and dies. (Oops, spoilers.) Follow-up “Carpathia” sounds a bit like a brit-pop tune, what with the wistful reverb, processed strings, and discrete acoustic strumming; it’s a nice change of mood that stands out as a highlight.
If you’re into cheerful, instrument-stuffed indie-pop, you’ll find a ton to love in Koria Kitten Riot. You can listen to the whole album and let it wash over your mood, or you can listen to individual tunes; it matters not. It will make you smile either way.
Bishop Allen was also doing quirky indie-pop in the mid ’00s, and they’ve since gotten a bit noisier than their indie-pop masterpiece The Broken String. I think they still count as indie-pop on Lights Out, but they’re certainly creeping closer to power-pop.
They make it clear with opener “Start Again,” which is all buzzy synths, classy dance-rock guitars, and propulsive percussion. “Bread Crumbs” makes the dance-rock vibes even more explicit, putting together a wicked bass groove, a protoypical piano hook, and a minimum of lyrics. (And, because this is Bishop Allen, there’s also a bass-heavy horn section.) “Crows” involves some of their traditional quirky rhythms (Latin/island, a la “Like Castanets”), chill melodies, and pristine arrangements, but with a funky bass line. It’s way fun. “Skeleton Key” is another funky tune that’s worth remembering.
The overall sound of Lights Out is more matured, even with the dance-rock tendencies: it’s a poised, refined musicality that runs through the record. The lyrics reflect that aging as well; there are more references to hard times, the existential crises of adulthood (“No Conditions”), and that most adult of rituals: leaving the party early (“Why I Had To Go”). But they never get heavy-handed, morose, or grumpy. It’s a band that grew up, but kept their pop song skills with them. Mazel tov! Here’s to Bishop Allen: long may you write.
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.
Slim Loris hails from Stockholm, Sweden, but you’d never be able to tell based on their sound. They play folky Americana with Shins-esque indie-pop leanings, which should perk up the ears of any longtime reader of this blog. The best example is “Clean as a Whistle,” which blends a tambourine, banjo/acoustic guitar strum, and a Paul Simon-esque flute for an incredibly satisfying verse. The chorus kicks it up a notch, adding in a tom drum, a french horn, and perky background vocals that you will want to shout along with. It’s the sort of the song that makes me sit up and take notice.
But they’re not a one-trick pony: opener “Fear of Flying” is a jubilant indie-pop tune composed of hectic percussion, bouncy organ, steady guitar strum … and timpani. It sounds effortless, just like “Clean as a Whistle.” If you want even more than that, “I Will Forget” and “While I Breathe” are quiet tunes driven by slow, stately piano. In “Domestic,” a gorgeous female alto voice is introduced as a counterpoint to the male tenor vocals. The charm of Slim Loris is that all of these sounds cohabit Future Echoes and Past Replays without sounding disjointed or erratic. The band inhabits all of their sounds, making them sound natural.
The overall effect of Future Echoes is an impressive one: it can easily stand up beside other indie-pop albums from much more well-known bands. Not every track is a home run, but there are a ton of high-quality tracks. If you’re a fan of thoughtful indie-pop with lively arrangements but also a pensive side, I highly recommend checking out Slim Loris.
Way Yes‘ Tog Pebbles is the sort of thing that comes along, blows my mind, and leaves me wondering what to write about. Tog Pebbles‘s unique sound blends tribal rhythms, shimmering guitars, horns, and impressionistic vocals to create a unique sound. It’s like a more grounded Animal Collective; instead of having a mystical quality that AC has, Way Yes has a concrete feel. It’s as if I am walking through a jungle, matter-of-factly, instead of with wide-eyed wonder. Maybe I’m sneaking a few glances of wide-eyed wonder every now and then, but mostly, you know, this is a thing that happens. It’s beautiful and excellent, but it’s not necessarily out of the ordinary (at least to the members of Way Yes). To us, of course, it’s kind of mindblowing, which is why I’m breaking from my usual reviewing methods and going all Pitchfork on this review. EXTENDED METAPHORS EVERYWHERE.
I could tell you about the individual songs, but the album is so tightly written and organized that I feel it would be largely useless. Furthermore, the band doesn’t have to get away from their core sound very often (because their core sound is so unique): if I described each of the songs, it would largely be the same descriptors. But the melodies are excellent, the moods are exquisite, and the songs are wonderful. If you’re into unique sounds but hate the phrase “world music,” then Way Yes has an album that will make you jump. Totally awesome.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of instrumental music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.