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Tag: Sufjan Stevens

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.

Raymondale and the Family Band show gold in their youthfulness

The defining characteristic of Raymondale and the Family Band is youth. The band looks young, sounds young and has lots of room to grow in their piano-pop sound. It’s no dig to them that they’re young; on the contrary, more power to them for figuring out what they want to do and doing it. But there are flashes of brilliance that are dampened by youthful peculiar decisions.

The piano pop here is of a stately, indie variety, as if Sufjan Stevens’ aesthetic choices were distilled into Ben Folds’ piano with Billy Joel playing it. RD Bonner (who is also Raymondale, both names I’m assuming as affectations of Raymond Dale) handles the piano and the vocals,  Kiah Bonner holds down the percussion, and Alyson Bonner takes on most of the other instruments (trumpet,  vocals, etc). The songs are dominated by pop piano stylings, similar to the way that Ben Folds’ piano dominates most of his songs. While the approaches are the same, the Bonners do a good job of not nicking Folds’ shtick. The closest they come to ripping off Mr. Rockin’ the Suburbs is on “For Her,” where the smooth piano line and the background “ahs” just scream “Fred Jones Pt. 2.” They kill the comparison by significantly altering the mood at the end of the song (and not really in a good way, unfortunately). But they are taking pains to distinguish themselves, and that’s a good thing.

The lyrics fall somewhere between the incredibly emotional tales of Bright Eyes and the incredibly detailed story songs of The Mountain Goats. “Rosa de Chiapas” details a failed attempt to cross the border from Mexico to America. “For Her” tells of a boy dying in a hospital before an girl can get to him from six states away. Highlight “God Bless You, Archbishop” tells of a South American peasant uprising. The lyrics are clever and interesting, if a little bit stilted at times by trying to cram too many or too few syllables into a line.

All of these parts together create the Raymondale and the Family Band sound: a wide-eyed, piano-heavy pop sound. There are harmonies, rounds, counterpoints, and more tricks up their sleeve. But they never fill the sound, as Sufjan does. The band is content to let the piano carry the band, and that sets them apart. The songs don’t always flow perfectly, as there are odd jumps and mood shifts occasionally, but it’s the sound of a band discovering its own sound. It’s not a sign of incompetence; it’s a sign of overshooting their experience at the moment. Raymondale and the Family Band want to be great, and they’re gunning for it hard.

Some bands are scattered as a way of life. Some bands are just scattered on this particular pit stop as they get their things together. Raymondale and the Family Band is definitely the latter. The melodic quality and aesthetic ideas of this band point toward great things for the band, even if it’s not exactly all together on this release. I would highly recommend Consider the Birds to any fan of piano pop, as RD Bonner is going to be a name that you hear more often, with or without the Family Band. I hope that he sticks with it and gets the success he (and the rest of the band) will soon deserve.

William Fitzsimmons has himself a downer little Christmas

I am incredibly picky when it comes to Christmas music. I’m averse to sap and schmaltz in general, so that lends itself to a general skepticism of all things Christmas-related, not just music. But when good Christmas things come around, I enjoy them as much (if not more than) everyone else. Charlie Brown Christmas, Sufjan’s Christmas EPs, and most recently Aaron Hale‘s HARK! EP are in heavy rotation around here.

It’s with subdued glee that I type this announcement: the almost-too-honest-and-realistic folk singer William Fitzsimmons has released a Christmas song. It’s not your typical Noel verse, in that it doesn’t have all the musical giveaways that scream THIS IS A CHRISTMAS SONG, SUCKER!!! But it is about Christmas (in its own depressing way), and it’s (as always) remarkably honest. Those of you with a general disdain for the holidays would do well to give a listen to William Fitzsimmons’ “Covered in Snow”; I think you’d enjoy it. What’s even better is that it’s paired with a gorgeous, pensive video shot (for no apparent reason) in Belgium. Merry Christmas.

Give Yourself a Hand(s)

Post-hardcore, as I define it, is hardcore music with emotions and melodies running through it. These emotions present themselves through singing, yelling and spoken word (as opposed to the traditional screaming, growling and roaring of pure hardcore). The melodies come through in the guitars or in the vocals.

Inside that definition, Hands is a pretty fantastic post-hardcore band. They have the heavy guitars and occasional low-throated growl of hardcore, along with other hardcore aesthetics. There aren’t many blastbeats, but there are some pretty heavy sections. Contrasting against those incredibly heavy moments are pieces of heartbreaking beauty, like the acoustic-driven “Communion” and the single electric guitar of “Ignorance.”

Library Voices create bookish indie-pop

What is it that makes pop music such a fitting background for philosophical and hyper-literary lyrics? This question comes up regularly for listeners of The Decemberists, Modest Mouse, Andrew Bird, Sufjan Stevens and the like. And the question has come up again while listening to Library Voices.

This ten-piece pop collective hails from Saskatchewan, Canada. Their Hunting Ghosts and Other Collected Shorts EP stays true to its bookish name, combining pop culture references, narrative structure, philosophical musings, and existential confusion with musical styles from uptempo, guitar-driven pop to ethereal pieces with delicate instrumental textures. Their Myspace says they sound like “drunk kids talking too openly and too honestly.” I’d have to agree, except these drunk kids are hip, have read lots of books and are probably drunk on craft beers and red wine. (After all, they have appeared in The New Yorker.)

The opening track “Step off the Map and Float” begins with some Nintendo-like sounds, a lighthearted group count-off to twelve, and then jumps into an up-tempo pop song whose chorus–“Your existence is a pinprick/On a paper continent/The patron saints all patronize me”–is tinged with just enough resignation and anguish. But, it is ultimately ebullient: “So step off the map and float.” This track is a balanced showing of their sound, which features clean guitar, multi-part vocals, and an array of quirky elements that at the same time both thicken the song and lighten the sound.

“Kundera on the Dance Floor” features a syncopated rhythm section (including a saxophone) and a sort of character vignette of the “golden girl.” She wears a Tom Waits t-shirt, is “piss drunk on red wine and melody,” and quotes Dando and Kafka. Library Voices’ sharp lyrics and the catchy melodies do exactly what pop lyrics and melodies should do: get stuck in your head and make you thankful for it. Oh, and as a consequence of singing the educated lyrics to yourself as you walk down the street, you get to be introspective and consider, among other ironies and tragedies of life, “the unbearable lightness of being.”

Yet at times Library Voices’ literary leanings can come off as too overt. The somewhat underwhelming “Things We Stole From Vonnegut’s Grave” is just as list-like as it sounds. Abstract items of contraband such as “consciousness of the human condition” and “a taste for science fiction” provide the list with some intrigue. Either way, it is impressive and humorous to listen to the band reel off obscure Vonnegut references, and they certainly leave no doubt that they read a lot of the man’s works. Musically it is one of their more unusual pieces in that its harmonic structure lies outside of the realm of traditional pop. It is only striking in contrast to their other songs. The factual lyrics are impersonal at worst, but the song works within the overall aesthetic of Library Voices in that themes often found in Vonnegut stories regularly show up in the band’s original lyrics. For instance, in “Love in the Age of Absurdity,” the band takes a somewhat prophetic tack, questioning the seeming normality of pop culture givens such as social networking and reality television and stirring the listener to examine his or her place.

“Hunting Ghosts” and “The Lonely Projectionist” are easily the most in keeping with the title of the EP. Both are extensive narratives, and “Hunting Ghosts” is unique in that it features soft, female lead vocals. This quiet, ethereal song contains tighter backing harmonies, more reverb, and a deftly-written string section to create the more intimate texture of this song. The narrative-confessional lyrics add to such a texture. Instrumentally, “The Lonely Projectionist” shares similarities with the other pieces, such as an extensive use of organs and synths, with the bass and drums driving the song forward. However, this song is their best-arranged piece; the instrumental elements of the song move seamlessly together through a larger range of dynamics and moods. About two-thirds of the way through the song they take a chance on a bridge that veers away from the earlier part of the song, and it is a most pleasant surprise. The lyrics narrate two parallel existences of loneliness, and this more oblique approach to existential questions sounds less cathartic.

Library Voices pull off their sound and the pop collective aesthetic with just the right amount of ease. It isn’t polished, but it isn’t chaotic, and doesn’t seem forced. Hunting Ghosts and Other Collected Shorts EP makes me eager for a full-length album. –Max Thorn

Jacob Furr debuts strong folk songwriting

There are various schools of thought when it comes to folk music. Woody Guthrie leads the traditionalists. The Dylan school is all cryptic lyrics and chunky chords. There’s the Nick Drake school, which is quiet, pensive, and emotive. The Sufjanites pack their songs full of instruments. There’s the freak-folk Banhart followers, which are just out of their minds. And then there’s the Joseph Arthur school, which is plaintive lyrics and lots of pop influence. No folk artist can escape the influence of these artists.

Jacob Furr falls squarely in the Joseph Arthur school. His songs are definitely folk-laden, but have a lot of pop influences. The strumming is smooth, the recording is tight, and the songwriting is structured in concise pop structures more than the meandering, free-form folk odysseys of other artists. His voice is warm and inviting; no creaking, breaking or howling here. These seven tunes on The Only Road are very emotive, but not hysterical or pre-occupied with their own emotionality.

In short, these are honest songs that are enjoyable. They don’t belabor the point, and they don’t make it cryptic or inaccessible. “Many Times” is about being lonely on the road, and its musical echoes of Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” only accentuate the point that being free and on your own is not always all that it’s cracked up to be. Tom Waits would have been proud to write “Poor Wayfaring Stranger,” as the eerie sway and low-slung plod invoke an atmosphere of danger, dark alleys and more. Furr’s invocation of Jewish legend and religion (“going over river Jordan”) makes the song even more foreign and thus all the more interesting.

Furr’s command of melody on “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” is another element that helps the song succeed. His vocal melodies, carried by his calm and inviting voice, are some of the longest-sticking remnants after the album is done.

Other than “Stranger,” the highlight here is “Where Are You Going?” The song expertly combines all the elements that Furr is best at:  solid songwriting conveying honest emotion, a memorable vocal line,  and an inviting atmosphere. It’s the type of song that fits in the emotional climax of TV shows, and I mean that as high praise.

Also in “Where Are You Going,” he delivers his best lyrical line. The lyrics in The Only Road are clear, concise, and, in comparison to other folk artists, not something to write home about. But he delivers a crushing set in the middle of this song:  “She said why are you flying?/Cause it’s faster than a bus/There’s no stops along the long way./What became of us?” In the midst of the mundane conversation he’s relating, he drops in the whole point of the song, then jumps off again, ready for the next lyric. The stark contrast and particular delivery made me take notice from the very first time I heard it, and that’s a good thing.

The Only Road is a good debut. Furr has established himself as a strong songwriter in the vein of Joseph Arthur and Josh Rouse. He can strengthen his lyrics (and, in folk, that’s a big consideration), but the musicianship is tight. If you’re interested in folk that will please your ears and tickle your emotions, Jacob Furr should be in your near future. And seeing as you can get his album in a “pay-what-you-want” scheme, you really should.

ACL Explains It All: MuteMath

So, in addition to coming from a pop-punk background, I came from a Christian rock background. The weeping and the gnashing of teeth need not apply, because I was birthed on bands that actually did something meaningful with their careers: Relient K, Switchfoot, OC Supertones, and Earthsuit. I listened to a lot of other bands (Bleach in particular) in Christian rock, but those four names were meaningful outside of Christian rock circles (although the ‘tones were only big in ska circles, literally and metaphorically).

While Switchfoot went on to modern-rock fame and Relient K went into piano-pop-punk, Earthsuit broke up. And then they formed MuteMath, and left Christian rock.

This is distressing to me on many levels. One, it’s distressing that the remnants of what was probably the most creative Christian band of the past twenty years (no, really; Kaleidoscope Superior is earth-shatteringly, mind-bendingly good) abandoned the genre, but two, it’s distressing that there is a need to.

Christian rock has a problem. For several reasons, it’s just not as good as its secular brethren. It suffers from lowered expectations (“well, it’s just a cleaned-up version of real music, who would expect it to be good?”); too much focus on lyrics; less competitive market, letting less-talented work slip through; less critical audiences (audiences less interested in musical quality than moral quality); and many more. In short, people are rewarded (with listeners and money) for making music that wouldn’t cut it in the secular scene. And that lack of quality hurts the perception of Christian music, which hinders the possibility of any great Christian  artists ever emerging. Which is distressing, because I like hearing people sing about things I like in a style I like. At this point, my chances of that happening are slim and falling.

This is not to say that there aren’t Christian bands putting out quality, quality work. Tooth and Nail keeps some great artists; Jonezetta is fantastic. Gotee harbors some talented musicians. But for the most part, stuff that gets played on Christian radio wouldn’t make it to modern rock radio (and with the state of our radio, that’s saying something).

Christians used to be on the cutting edge of art, science and thought. Now, we’re not. That’s a sad statement to me, and I wish that we could change it. Sufjan Stevens is working very hard to change this perception, as he is almost universally loved, and no one in their right mind would be able to listen to a Sufjan record without acknowledging that he must be a Christian. This is the way it should go; bands should strive to be the best band they can be in comparison to the secular market, and go from there. If I had my way, this distinction of “Christian music” wouldn’t exist, except for explicitly worship music, and perhaps CCM (which is, apparently, the distinction for Christian Adult Contemporary). It would just all be lumped in with your regular music, and the themes in the lyrics wouldn’t separate out the music into “secular” and “Christian.”

The whole idea that there is a Christian music scene is a tad ridiculous, but I’ll spare you the “you don’t see any Christian plumbers” shtick. I wish that MuteMath could have been in Christian music and respected as indie rockers; we’ll never know if they would have, had they tried it. But the odds were against them, so I don’t blame them for bailing. Christian market isn’t one for experimental indie-rock; their possibilities were limited (ever heard of the Myriad? I didn’t think so). They had to bail for the secular scene. And that makes me sad. Hopefully we have some more Sufjans make it in the indie-rock world, and make it safe to be unabashedly Christian again.

John Calvin's debut EP impresses and confuses

Charlie Brown once uttered, “There is no heavier burden than great potential.” I kept coming back to this thought as I repeatedly listened to John Calvin‘s debut EP The Walls of the City. Calvin delivers several instances of remarkable pop/folk songwriting throughout the EP, but it seems that there are just as many puzzling occurences and glaring missteps to follow the highlights.

John Calvin at Second Wind, April 3, 2009
John Calvin at Second Wind, April 3, 2009

John Calvin’s sound owes a heavy debt to Joseph Arthur. I have no idea if Calvin knows of Arthur, but Calvin’s ideas on songwriting are very similar to Arthur’s. Both have the acoustic guitar as their main instrument, but dabble in piano and electric. Both have a kitchen-sink mentality to songwriting. Both have a pseudo-hippie feel to their lyrics and sound. That being said, John Calvin’s writing never worships or emulates Arthur; it would just be a really, really great split EP or tour idea.

The differences are important: where Arthur’s voice is low, Calvin’s is high. It’s not new-school emo high, but he’s definitely a tenor. And, most importantly, Calvin’s songwriting is not as refined as Arthur’s. If you thought Arthur had a lot of things going on in his work, you will be slightly astounded by the number of ideas that go into a standard Calvin song.

Both these differences are a blessing and a curse; John Calvin’s high voice makes his sound distinctly his own. While there are influences from Dave Matthews, Ben Harper, OAR, and many other hippie/pop/folk outfits, Calvin’s voice sets him apart. It is good. Unfortunately, his voice does not sustain warble or cover miscues very well, and this creates some rather unfortunate moments (“Spit That Out” is particularly difficult to listen to).

One of John Calvin's many guitar faces.
One of John Calvin's many guitar faces.

His kitchen-sink mentality makes tracks such as “Sleep Well” and “Song to Make the Stars Fall” really, really interesting. “Sleep Well” is just under six minutes, and the amount of musical ideas packed into the track (played by guitar, piano, dual violin, electric guitar, and female vocals) creates a mesmerizing effect. “Song to Make the Stars Fall” has a similar mentality with a similar effect. At its worst, strange things make their way into his songs and throw off the groove (“Spit it Out” has strangely distorted vocals and electronic blips and glitches throughout).

It is easy to declare that John Calvin is at his best when he’s singing chilled-out tunes with a lot of instrumentation. If Sufjan Stevens had a little more hippie in him, he and John Calvin could be best friends. In fact, at Calvin’s CD release show, he covered two Sufjan tracks: the jubilant “Chicago” and the sorrowful “Casimir Pulaski Day.” Both were standout moments of the show, as nearly ten musicians covered the stage and created a veritable orchestra.

His show showed a different side of him than his album presents; his album is focused on his acoustic-based pop/folk, while his live show was much louder and much more electric. John Calvin certainly knows his way around an electric guitar, and he was very entertaining to watch. He made several guitar faces that I have never seen before during guitar solos – it was fun.

His mellower work was more musically interesting, but no one would be able to say that seeing John Calvin rock out wasn’t entertaining. He worked the audience pretty well, and made the show rock until he unveiled his stronger, mellower pieces.

John Calvin has a love of many types of music, and his live shows and album display that love. There are plenty of great things about that: his songwriting is varied, his melodies are catchy, his instrumentation is not cliche, and his overall product has a very comfortable feel to it. But there is much room for improvement: his songwriting vision needs to clarify some more and his vocal performances need to solidify. John Calvin has set a good pace for himself with this release, but now he needs settle in to a groove  and figure out where he’s exactly going.

John Calvin, getting into it at Second Wind.John Calvin getting into it.

Frolic with Mermaid Skeletons

On Mermaid Skeleton’s myspace, the group claims that the band began when frontman Joshua Hryciak was inspired by the movie “Bambi.” And while I am not sure if they are completely serious about this or not, it actually makes sense after listening to their EP Darlings. The songs on this EP make me think of wood nymphs and magical forests, so it’s not hard to imagine a talking young fawn, too.

But what does it sound like? Mermaid Skeletons is a large group, with nine current members, but their music is acoustic, making the mini-folk-orchestra sound light and airy. There are percussive elements, but no drums. You won’t notice this, however, when you listen casually. (“The rhythm’s in the guitar,” as John Lennon used to say before The Beatles had a drummer.) Think Belle & Sebastian-styled melodies with a hint of Sufjan Stevens quirkiness topped off with a very talented lead vocalist. Hryciak’s voice is quite high, but it never sounds strained or forced, and his vocals (justifiably) steal the spotlight throughout Darlings. The band’s press release uses the word “sugary,” and I think this is accurate, but not in a sticky-sweet-how-cute kind of way – it’s more like icing on a cake.

The opener “Happy Bell” is just what it sounds like – both happy and bell-like, with the inclusion of the glockenspiel. It’s my favorite on the EP because of the gorgeous and catchy vocal lines, perfectly executed harmonies, and its range of dynamics to build tension. And ya gotta love glockenspiel. Really though, all of the songs on this EP have their strengths, and since it clocks in at a mere twenty minutes, you should definitely give all of Darlings a chance. All six songs (including a short accordion interlude) are on Mermaid Skeleton’s myspace. I highly recommend this darling EP, and I hope that the band will release a full-length.