1. “War and Opera” – Montoya. The careful, restrained arranging that Montoya deploys in this melodic indie-pop tune gives it a maturity and dignity that separate it from other tunes. The delicate guitar and alto vocals still create thoroughly enough interest to power this intriguing song.
2. “ALIEN” – Laura and Greg. The duo has transformed from a pristine acoustic duo into a punchy, noisy indie-pop-rock outfit. It’s not exactly Sleigh Bells, but they’re heading in that direction–but Laura’s charming vocals and fun keys keep the song on this side of full-on-indie-rock assault.
3. “Call Me Out” – Jesse Alexander. A former member of Cobalt and the Hired Guns keeps the ska / indie-pop fusion tunes coming: this one has horns and organ to keep the good vibes flowing.
4. “Fire Up the Bilateral Brain and Draw” – Word to Flesh. Here’s a quirky tune that employs the keys-focused sound structures of formal pop, but has no real formal structure: the only phrase in the two minute tune is the titular mantra, surrounded by guitar noodling. It’s remarkably engaging, and then it’s over–sort of like a less manic They Might Be Giants.
5. “Rainer” – Lull. A hammering rock intro flips on its head and unveils a delicate, early ’00s emo sound. They get back to the rock, but they take their sweet time getting there and make it worth your while when they do.
6. “A Moment to Return” – Why We Run. Moody bass/drums meets The National vocals with some U2 ambient/anthemic guitars on top. The results are a surprisingly uplifting post-punk tune–post-punk generally doesn’t make me want to dance or smile, and there’s some of both to be had here.
7. “When We’re Clouds” – Slow Runner. So indie-rock used to be shorthand for “rock songs that are definitely rock but kinda don’t play by the same rules.” Slow Runner’s tune is a song of (government?) scientific experimentation on human subjects (I think?). The music itself is slightly off-kilter rock, like a louder Grandaddy, a chillaxed Flaming Lips, or something altogether different. Here’s to Slow Runner.
8. “Dance Baby” – Luxley. That rare electro-rock song which doesn’t hammer listeners over the head with massive synth blasts–instead, there’s a bit of Cobra Starship restraint in the vocal-heavy arrangement. There is a bit of punk-pop attitude in the vocals (Good Charlotte came to mind), giving this a bit of a unique flair.
9. “Maria, Mine” – Don Tigra. Former folkie Stephen Gordon has slickly and impressively reinvented himself as an indie-rocker with post-punk vibes, coming off as a cross between Interpol, Cold War Kids, and Leagues. (Full disclosure: I’ve given some professional advice to Gordon over the years.)
10. “Psychopaths and Sycophants” – Keith Morris & the Crooked Numbers. Bluesy, swampy roots rock with whiskey-sodden, raspy vocals and all sorts of swagger. The great backup vocal arrangement and performances put the song over the top.
11. “Polaris” – Shiners. Minimalist electro-pop usually doesn’t have enough structure and melody to keep me interested, but Shiners do a great job of creating a cohesive, immersive whole out of small parts. [Editor’s note: This song is no longer available.]
This set of MP3 drops aren’t arranged by any particular mood or sonic space, as I usually do. Here’s a grab bag! Enjoy the surprises!
1. “Sisters” – ELY. There’s more suspense and payoff than in most novels packed into this four-minute instrumental wonder. The trumpet leads the way throught the deconstructed verses, teasing the listener with what could be, until the rousing full-band jaunt that appears twice. Hooky, interesting, and really worth your time.
2. “Sail” – Seckar. This song has a lot going on: post-rock instrumentation, danceable vibes, electronic grooves, acoustic solemnity, ghostly vocals, and overall a giant sense of fun.
3. “Lips” – Oyster Kids. The tension between the light, Foster the People-like melodies and the slow-moving guitars gives this pop song a neat vibe.
4. “Orange + Blue” – Colored In. Chaotic, hyperactive, multi-colored indie-pop held together through sheer force of will. It’s like some alternate-universe of the Flaming Lips where they didn’t get all paranoid but continued getting weird after Yoshimi.
5. “Plastic” – Howard. The grandeur of trip-hop, the instrumentals of maximalist post-dub, and a clicky percussive sensibility lead this indie-rock track. Sounds like a version of OK Computer, 20 years later.
6. “Tin” – Nearly Oratorio. Weary, dreary, bleary, and yet capable of woozing its way to memorable melodies and comforting moods.
7. “The Mahogany Tower” – Pyramid//Indigo. Dark, brooding, and evocative, this instrumental post-rock piece includes found-sound clips of sermons for extra atmosphere.
8. “Cove” – Kerosene (UK). Vocal gravitas and spartan electric guitar levity combine neatly here to make a serious, mature indie-rock tune that doesn’t feel overburdened or maudlin.
9. “Don’t Waste Another Day” – The Moves Collective. There’s a subtly funky groove, charming melodies, a friendly vibe, and rhythms that make me want to dance. This is acoustic jam done right.
10. “My Situation” – Joseph Tonelli. This gently fingerpicked tune is already enticing before it brings in subtle percussion and beautiful strings–after that it’s impressive.
11. “I Called to Cry” – Nate Henry Baker. For those who’ve gone the Sturgill Simpson / Chris Stapleton route and decided that full-on country music is alright by you, add Nate Henry Baker to your list. This one’s a traditional tears-in-your-beer ballad that wouldn’t feel out of place with The Louvin Brothers or Roy Orbison.
12. “Maybe I Won’t Come Home Tonight” – Meredith Baker. There are millions of troubled-relationship tunes, but this one sticks out above the rest with a gentle guitar, an engaging voice, and that x factor called charm.
1. “Hopeful” – Bear Mountain. A little bit of Passion Pit, a little bit of Vampire Weekend, a little M83, and you’ve got one of the best dance-pop songs I’ve heard all year.
2. “Entomologist” – Luxxe. Shades of Jason Isbell’s evocative voice creep in here, placed in the context of a perky-yet-mature pop-rock tune. It all comes off with impressive cohesion.
3. “Buoy” – The Band and the Beat. If you wished that Mates of State used analog synths all the time, you’ll be way into TBxB’s gentle, warm, female-fronted synth-pop. The tune just wraps itself around my brain and comforts it.
4. “Understand” – Photoreal. It seems wrong to describe this pop-rock tune as “muscly,” but it feels like a streamlined, beefed-up version of Generationals’ catchy indie-pop work.
5. “Au Naturel” – Holy ’57. The frenetic blitz of a major-key sugar rush will never get old. This tune has everything I’m looking for in a pop tune.
6. “Lodestar” – Starlight Girls. The disco vibes are impeccably done and the vocals are tight, but–for my money–this song is 100% about that bass work. It’s melodic, funky, tight, and just plain irresistible. A knock-out.
7. “Storm” – Bright Whistles. Sometimes I’m concerned that I’ve abused the term “quirky,” because something always seems to come along that was quirkier than the last. Suffice it to say, “Storm” by Bright Whistles is like what The Flaming Lips could have been if they kept on the Yoshimi path, or what all genres of indie-rock sound like in a giant blender, or (stay with me on this one) what an OK GO music video would sound like if the video itself were transformed into audio that reflected the clever, enthusiastic, enigmatic visuals. In other words, it’s pretty rad.
8. “Summertime” – The High Divers. Bands are always making odes to that sunniest of seasons, but this one really nails it: a touch of Vampire Weekend, a splash of Hamilton Leithauser’s vocal gymnastics, and a whole lot of good-old-pop-music. Dare you to not smile.
9. “Two Weeks” – HIGH UP. File this powerhouse tune under “Muscle Shoals Soul/Funk,” right there next to Alabama Shakes, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, and St. Paul and the Broken Bones.
10. “Burning Candles” – Disaster Lover. It’s like I walked into a room where Disaster Lover’s vision was already fully employed: not so many songs capture and modify the aural space that they’re deployed in. The whirling/somewhat chaotic percussion and synths that are woven together to create this here/there/everywhere piece of work are wild and yet inviting.
11. “We All Decided No” – S.M. Wolf. This is, at its core, a pop-rock song. It is a very weird, arch, theatrical, blown-out take on the theme, but it’s in there. This is basically what I imagine we’re trying to capture with the idea of indie-pop: pop songs that just aren’t radio material in this universe, but only because it’s an unjust universe.
1. “Saturday” – SPORTS. This evanescent (1:13!), earnest, perky garage-rock track hits all the right notes and touches a chord in me. It’s the perfect mix of enthusiasm and grit. Father/Daughter Records is on a roll.
2. “Vultures” – Delta Mainline. Call it Spiritualized at its most arch or acoustic-based ’90s Britpop (Oasis, The Verve) at its most early-morning woozy–this track is a memorable one.
3. “Wall Ball” – Art Contest. Any band that can make math-rock accessible and hooky is greatly to be praised. Art Contest’s impressive technical chops are only overshadowed by their incredible songwriting ones. This song is an adventure.
4. “There’s No Love” – We Are Magnetic. It’s summer, so I need a continuous stream of brash, upbeat dance-rock tunes. This one plays out like a less yelpy Passion Pit, complete with a giant chorus anchored by a soaring melody and backed with a choir. Get your dance on.
5. “Pistoletta” – North by North. Imagine My Chemical Romance had a little more rock and a little less theatrics, or think of late ’60s/early ’70s rock, right as glam was breaking out and wasn’t really there yet. Soaring vocals, rock drama, and crunchy guitars sell it.
6. “Get on the Boat” – Little Red Lung. This female-fronted outfit calls up Florence and the Machine comparisons through its adventurous arrangements (check that booming cello), minor-key vibes, and front-and-center vocals.
7. “Then Comes the Wonder” – The Landing. An ecstatic mishmash of handclaps, burbling synths, piano, and falsetto vocals creates a song that makes me think of a half-dozen disparate sonic influences (Foals, Prince, Fleet Foxes, and the Flaming Lips among them).
8. “Dust Silhouettes” – CFIT. Glitchy electro-pop noises give way to psych-influenced guitar and vocals, all stacked on top of an indie-rock backline. It’s a head-spinner in the best sort of way.
9. “Take Me Away” – Late Nite Cable. The chorus in this song is the electro-pop equivalent of the sun coming out from behind clouds after two days of rain.
10. “ONE” – Moving Panoramas. Sometimes I wonder what people are listening to when they’re walking down the street with headphones in. This feels like it could be one of those things: a walking-speed indie-pop-rock song with excellent bass work, down-to-earth vocals, and a little sense of wonder.
11. “Alien Youth” – The Albino Eyes. Calls back to the time when synth-rock meant The Cars: the zinging, charming synths over slightly-smoothed out garage-rock is nostalgic in the best of ways.
12. “Strangers” – Balaclade. Balancing guitar crunch with feathery vocals makes this an engaging post-’90s-indie-rock track.
13. “Falling” – Here We Go Magic. This warm, swirly, electronics-laden pop-rock tune calls to mind School of Seven Bells, if their sound was a little more tethered to acoustic instrumentation.
1. “Too Deep in Love” – Kylie Odetta. Post-modern pop that mashes hip-hop and torch song, electro jam and walking-speed diva pop tune. It’s an infectious blend.
2. “Tide Teeth” – Night Beds. So I didn’t expect Night Beds to go all electro-soul on us, but he’s cranking out the sensuous slow jamz here.
3. “Kindred” – Red Cosmos. Smeary synths, staccato percussion, perky treble melodies and dour vocals create a unique space somewhere between dream-pop and downtempo psych-rock.
4. “Khazé” – Mune. That moment where post-punk was turning into new wave (which would soon birth synth-pop) was a hazy phaze where energy and lackadaisical dreaming seemed to coexist. Mune gets that.
5. “Aftergold” – Big Wild. Electro doesn’t always have to feature big, walloping synths: “Aftergold” relies on strings, plunky marimba, uncomplicated beats, and burbling vocals to create an energizing, impressive track.
6. “ Ghost ft. Patrick Baker” – Lane 8. Artsy electro drawing off trance and funk instead of dubstep is a welcome thing in my book. This tune never has a major drop, and that’s 100% cool with me.
7. “Away – Reptile Youth. The Flaming Lips dabble in electronic music, but Reptile Youth puts the creaky, eccentric, cosmic vibes that the lips peddle firmly into the electro milieu. The vocals of the two outfits are particularly similar.
8. “Amalie” – Colornoise. This track has the sort of mystic, atmospheric vibes that Fleetwood Mac was able to conjure up, only with a bit more ominous, gritty vibe on one end and sweeter vocals on the other.
1. “Winter is for Kierkegaard” – Tyler Lyle. There are few things that get me more than a earnest tenor singing way too many words over a folky arrangement. Lyle plays somewhere between Josh Ritter, The Tallest Man on Earth, and Gregory Alan Isakov.
2. “Resolution” – Young Legs. The world always needs more quirky, delightful indie-pop on a strummed banjo.
3. “The Fall” – Reina del Cid. Warm, fingerpicked acoustic guitar; brushed snare; stand-up bass; contented alto vocals–it sounds like all the bits and bobs of a country song, but del Cid turns it into a charming folky ballad.
4. “Forever for Sure” – Laura & Greg. The gentle, easy-going guitar and male/female vocals create an intimate vibe, while a mournful instrument in the distance creates a sense of spaciousness. The strings glue them together–the whole thing comes off beautifully. I’ve likened them to the Weepies before, but this one also has a Mates of State vibe.
5. “Touch the Ground” – The Chordaes. Dour Brit-pop verses, sky-high falsetto in the sunshiny, hooky chorus–the band’s covering all their bases on the pop spectrum. That chorus is one to hum.
6. “Inside Out” – Avalanche City. My favorite Kiwis return not with an Antlers-esque, downtempo, white-boy-soul song. It’s not exactly the chipper acoustic pop of previous, but it’s still infectiously catchy.
7. “Bad Timing” – The Phatapillars. If Jack Johnson’s muse was outdoor camping and music festivals instead of surfing, he could have ended up like this. For fans of Dispatch and old-school Guster.
8. “Tapes” – The Weather Station. Sometimes trying to describe beauty diminishes it. Let this song just drift you away.
9. “ Forest of Dreams” – Crystal Bright and the Silver Hands. The Decemberists have largely gone standard with their arrangements, but there are still people holding it down for klezmer arrangements of gypsy-influenced melodies mashed up with the occasional operatic vocal performance. It’s like a madcap Beirut or a female-fronted Gogol Bordello.
10. “Heavy Star Movin’ – The Silver Lake Chorus. Written by the Flaming Lips for the choir (which operates in a very Polyphonic Spree-like manner), it’s appropriately cosmic and trippy. Strings accompany, but nothing else–the vocals are the focus here.
11. “Emma Jean” – WolfCryer. Here’s Matt Baumann doing what he’s great at: playing the storytelling troubadour with an acoustic guitar and a world-weary baritone.
There was a point in the mid-’00s when people knew almost exactly what you meant when you said, “We’re an indie-rock band.” With Death Cab for Cutie, Modest Mouse, The Shins, and dozens more running around, “indie rock” meant melodic rock songs with quirky affectations in one or more categories of lyrics, arrangements, song structures, and public persona (Flaming Lips were totally an indie-rock band for a minute, even though they were on a major label–whatever).
Quiet Company‘s Transgressor is an indie rock album in that fine tradition, drawing off all the influences that were impressing themselves on that wave of bands. It’s a melodic, enthusiastic, thoughtful, impressive record that creates surprises where I thought there could be no more surprises.
The first clue is lead single and opener “Seven Hells,” which is a frantic, manic tune in a major key. (Almost all the tunes here are in a major key.) The tune shows the versatility of Taylor Muse’s voice, going from smooth, friendly melodist to freaked-out rager in a span of seconds. It’s the sort of subversive moment that appeared in the mid-’00s and made you think that maybe these buttoned-up kids weren’t as okay as they looked on the cover of the album. Maybe it’s okay to not be totally okay. Maybe we should keep spinning this album for a few more aimless car rides around the city.
“Mother of a Deal” also packs personality and punch into spaces you wouldn’t expect. The casual, lackadaisical refrain of “this is how we play the game” contrasts to the passionate guitars, stomping drums and wailing organ, making another of the whiplash moments that are so cathartic and exciting. It’s that sort of giddy play with expectations that makes most of the tunes here so engaging. You might think, “Wait, didn’t we play that out in like 2009?” Well, maybe you did, but Quiet Company totally didn’t. The Shins could have written the excellent standout “The Road to Perdition,” but they didn’t, and now I’ve got plunking piano, ba-da-das, syncopated vocals, whizzing synths, stomps and handclaps trapped in my mind on loop. “I can’t get you off my mind,” indeed. If you can stop your feet from tapping in “The Road to Perdition,” then the emo revival has hit you a bit too hard, friend.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t some really sad things going on in Transgressor (“A Year in Decline,” “Wherever You Take Me”). It’s just that Quiet Company attacks difficult songs like “I Heard the Devil Say My Name” with almost pop-punk enthusiasm: blaring, wiry synths; galloping drums; big choruses; jubilant horns. There are some nuanced guitar lines, and there’s some heaviness in the lyrics, but if you left the lyrics out, you could dance gleefully to it. You can dance gleefully to basically any track on Transgressor, which is an irony inherent in the title.
The tale is about the courtship, consummation, and subsequent difficulties of marriage, and the title points out the narrator as the transgressor. But it’s still transgressive to dance at sadness and pain, no matter how many times we do it. “I’m begging you to know me / I’m begging you to figure me out / Are you brave enough to love me? / Are you smart enough to have your doubts?” Doesn’t get much rawer than that, even though that section is bookended by perky ba-da-da-da horns.
I could go on, but it would just diminish the beauty and power and excitement of Transgressor. There are alleys and paths and fields and caves to find for your own here. If you’re into mid-’00s indie-rock, late ’00s pop-punk like Relient K, or Death Cab for Cutie at any point in their career, you’ll be into Quiet Company’s impressive Transgressor.
I got married in November, which means I’ve been celebrating my way through the last few weeks instead of listening to new Christmas music. This means that instead of meaningful reviews, I have a large list of things that you and I should both listen to. I regret nothing. ONWARD!
The Good Shepherd Band, which released a beautiful Christmas album in 2011, are back with a new one entitled All the Bells Shall Ring. If it’s anything like the opener “O Come Let Us Adore Him” (starting off with an Advent hymn; I approve) and the last album, we’re in for big, church-style hymns in oft-triumphant arrangements. Wonderful!
Quirky, reverb-heavy indie-pop band SUNBEARS! offer up a 10-minute EP of Christmas music. It’s sure to be as thoroughly enthusiastic as its name: SUNBEARS! Do CHRISTMAS!
Vintage-style acoustic duo The Singer and the Songwriter are dropping 12 songs (in video form!) for the 12 Days of Christmas. Sounds lovely! Check it at their YouTube.
Afternoons‘ Say Yes is a fun, nostalgic indie-pop album that knows how to hit pop high notes with indie nuance. The album seems plucked out of the mid ’00s, when the populous-friendly psych of The Flaming Lips’ At War with The Mystics and the dance-heavy electro of MGMT were having their moments. (For good reason: If you check their convoluted history, it sort of was.)
The album has that sort of gentle production wash over it that softens every edge and warms (almost) every mood. Opener “Graffiti Artist” has a chant-able vocal hook (one of many) and a propulsive but not too aggressive synth hook (also one of many). The killer cut is the stomping, boisterous, utterly infectious title track, which drops second–the vocal melodies are magnetic, the rhythm is just-right, the chorus has people hollering “say yes!”, and the whole thing comes off as a pro-adventure anthem. Yup, sign me up for that.
“Saturday Morning” and “Bored Teenagers” bring in softer vibes that recall Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.’s work, while touches of the high-brow work Grandaddy did appear throughout. “Gloria” and “Love is a Western Word” are two more upbeat tracks worth noting. The back part of the album gets darker and creepier in both lyric and sound, making it less interesting to me, but the first part of the album is so infectious and joyful that it’s worth checking out just for that. Say yes, indeed. Stream the album here.
1. “Great White Shark” – Hollands. Maximalist indie-rock/pop music with groove, noise, melodic clarity, effusive enthusiasm, strings, harp, and just about everything else you can ask for. If the Flaming Lips hadn’t got so paranoid after At War with the Mystics…
2. “Coyote Choir” – Pepa Knight. Still batting 1.000, Pepa Knight brings his exuberant, India-inspired indie-pop to more mellow environs. It’s still amazing. I’m totally on that Pepa Knight train, y’all. (Hopefully it’s The Darjeeling Limited.)
3. “Peaks of Yew” – Mattson 2. I love adventurous instrumental music, and Mattson 2 cover a wide range of sonic territory in this 10-minute track. We’ve got some surf-rock sounds, some post-rock meandering, some poppy melodies, some ambient synths, and a whole lot of ideas. I’m big on this.
4. “Firing Squad” – Jordan Klassen. Sometimes a pop-rock song comes along that just works perfectly. Vaguely dancy, chipper, fun, and not too aggressive (while still allowing listeners to sing it loudly), “Firing Squad” is just excellent.
5. “Droplet” – Tessera Skies. There’s a tough juggling act going on in this breathtaking indie-pop tune: flowing instruments, flailing percussion, cooing vocals, and an urgent sense of energy. It’s like if Jonsi’s work got cluttered up with parts and then organized neatly.
6. “Available Light” – David Corley. If Alexi Murdoch, Tom Waits, and Joseph Arthur all got together and jammed, it might sound something like this gruff yet accessible, vaguely alt-country track.
7. “Blue Eyed Girl” – Sam Joole. I’d like to make a joke about blue-eyed soul here, but it’s actually closer to Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” than that. Lots of laidback guitars, good vibes, but not Jack Johnson twee, if you know what I mean.
8. “By the Canal” – Elephant Micah. I’m a big fan of people who aren’t afraid to let an acoustic guitar and voice splay out wherever they want and however long they want. Here, EM acts as an upbeat Jason Molina, putting the focus on his voice instead of the spartan-yet-interesting arrangements. Totally stoked for this new album.
9. “If It Does” – Robin Bacior. In this loose, smooth, walking-speed singer-songwriter tune with maximum atmosphere, shades of early ’00s Coldplay appear. That’s a compliment, people.
10. “Storm” – Dear Criminals. Not that often do I hear trip-hop, even in an updated melodic form. Way to go, DC–you pick up that torch that Portishead put down.
11. “You Open to the Idea” – Angelo De Augustine. Beautiful, delicate, wispy, earnest whisper-folk. They don’t make ’em like this very often anymore.
12. “Billowing Clouds” – Electrician. The mournful, affected spoken word over melancholy, trumpet-like synths makes me think of an electro version of the isolated, desolate Get Lonely by The Mountain Goats.
13. “Blue Chicago Moon (demo)” – Songs: Ohia. Until Jason Molina, I’ve never had a personal connection to the art of a troubled artist who died too early–Elliott Smith was gone before I knew of his work. Now with unreleased demos coming out consistently after Mr. Molina’s death, I feel the sadness of his passing over and over. Each new track is a reminder that there was work still to be made; it also feels like a new song from him, even though it’s objectively not.
Is this how a legacy gets made in the digital era? How long will we keep releasing new Molina songs, to remind us that he was there, and now he is not? (Please keep releasing them.) Will the new songs push people back to “The Lioness”? Will we keep these candles burning to light our own rooms, or will we bring them to other people? “Endless, endless, endless / endless depression,” Molina sings here. Is it truly endless? Are you still depressed? Does your permanent recording of the phrase make it truly “unchanging darkness”? “Try to beat it,” he intones, finally. Try to beat it, indeed. Keep trying until you can’t anymore. And then let your work stand forever. I guess this is how I mourn.
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.