I’m heading back to hipster Christmas SXSW this year, freelancing for the Oklahoma Gazette with talented chap Matt Carney. I’m scouring through the announced bands so that I’m ready when it comes time to suit up make my schedule. Here’s some A’s and B’s that I hope to check out in Austin:
The Black and White Years play indie-rock with electro influences, but it’s their insightful lyrics that really hooked me. Okay, and the melodies.
The Barr Brothers. Josh Ritter’s gravitas + The Low Anthem’s transcendent beauty + Avett Brothers’ brotheriness. This is solid folk gold, people.
Adam and the Amethysts. Gleeful folky/calypso/whatevery goodness. Givers and Lord Huron should be all up on them as tourmates.
The American Secrets. You know this band as the FreeCreditScore.com Band. But did you know that all five are long-time indie-rock vets? And one of the members is in Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.? And that they write pretty brilliant songs when not composing ditties for commercials?
There will be oh so many more to come. I hope to post these weekly until SXSW.
Just like IC puts out its year-end best-of list in February, my half-year best-of doesn’t hit until August. This list includes the music I covered while at the Oklahoma Gazette.
If you would like to see this list visually, I’ve created an Independent Clauses Pinterest page that also includes the best artwork that’s crossed IC’s path in 2011 and a list of best books about pop music.
16. Chad Valley – Equatorial Ultravox. ’80s dance-pop revivalism that captures both the playful nonchalance and wistful romanticism of the first disposable music era.
The idiosyncratic horns and strings of these nine songs make them better described as compositions. The odd dissonances and polyrhythms are strongly related to improvisational groups like Fight the Big Bull and vaguely reminiscent of highly orchestrated songwriters Sufjan Stevens (the fluttery saxes on “Honeychild”) and Dirty Projectors. But Stamper isn’t freestyling. The songs may sound completely random at times, but they were forethought by a human. (Read also: Not a robot.)
While Stamper sounds rather unplanned at times, these tunes reside in (an unusual corner of) the songwriter ballpark. While “Wake, Worried Sleeper, Wake” will overflow the boundaries of the average listener’s musical tastes, it still has a tender heart beating at its center. Stamper’s gentle voice, never completely given fully to melody, strikes a nice balance between the halves of his speak/sing delivery. His horns and strings never sound rough or gruff.
The title track is anchored by a repeated acoustic guitar bit, while the vocal melody of “Well” is almost catchy. “Arbor” sounds like a meandering cross between Jack Johnson strum and sonorous Low Anthem horns. But there, and especially in “Incredible People,” the difficult balance of pop sentiments (Stamper played bass on Danielson’s latest album) and composer’s moves creates a tension that sometimes feels like a man with a particularly dry humor trying to write playful, fun music.
That’s why the two best pieces almost entirely give over to classical music. The acoustic guitar and voice of “Press” prove that Stamper’s off-kilter rhythmic and melodic ideas don’t apply just to horns, while the instrumental “Away My Sin,” with its beautiful french horns, is the most transcendent piece here.
Interstitials is an oddly compelling release that introduced me to a creative, thoughtful composer. Whether Stamper will focus his attentions on pop, “classical” or refining his current vision of a place somewhere in between is yet to be seen, but that decision will need to take place before the next album. Stamper’s album is good, but it’s a point on the road and not a stopping point.
Midway Fair combines a unique set of sounds to create their folky amalgam. Equally at home churning out Bruce Springsteen-style rockers and English folk tunes, the band keeps listeners on their toes during its debut album The Distance of the Moon at Daybreak. Despite the deep well of influences that the members pull from (or unwittingly appropriate), they keep the songwriting straightforward and the instrumentation simple.
It’s a disarming record in that regard; the band pulls off American folk, English folk, American roots-rock with aplomb, not letting the listener settle in to any one listening experience. There isn’t, however, much mixing of the genres, as the band is content to jump around into different idioms instead of meshing them into something new. This results in some tunes that feel more comfortable for the band than others.
Rockin’ “(It’s Not) 1962” is the most assured performance of the album, led by the lead vocalist’s swagger. In other tunes he can lean too much on vibrato, making him sound warbly and underconfident, whether or not he actually is. But he locks into the band here, and it’s a highlight. The very British-sounding “Edward Cain” is a memorable tune despite the vibrato, and “Two Crows” is the closest the band comes to merging their influences into one tune.
The most encouraging thing about The Distance of the Moon at Daybreak is that there are no total bombs. “Fairest of Them All” feels a bit staid, but the chorus is one of the best on the album. “Put On The Brake” feels a bit overblown, but the instrumental solo section is solid.
Midway Fair has a good thing going – they’re on the same path as The Low Anthem, only with more muses and more rock drumming. If they can combine their inspirations more fully into a coherent sound, Midway Fair could be something really great.
Creep On Creepin’ On is an excellent name for Timber Timbre‘s latest full-length, as the word “creep” serves multiple purposes. In addition to being a fun pun (underlying the hidden but totally there pop sensibilities), the songs here creep along at slow paces and are purposefully eerie.
At first blush, Timber Timbre’s 2010 tourmates (Jonsi and The Low Anthem, both IC favorites) seem to be mismatches for Timber Timbre’s weird-folk sound. Nick Cave might tap them, or maybe even M. Ward on a grumpy day, but the transcendent pop tunes of Jonsi? The hymnal folk of The Low Anthem?
Yet after several listens, the doo-wop pop influences started to sink in (“Lonesome Hunter,” “Black Water”) . The purposefully murky arrangements congealed in my mind as purposeful choices. There may be skronking horns, shrieking strings, and heartbeat bass marking instrumentals like “Swamp Magic” and “Souvenirs,” but “Black Water” is a straight-up pop song that starts off with Taylor Kirk singing, “All I need is some sunshine.” Not a very creepy sentiment at all.
Then, somewhere around that time, the complexity and beauty of the arrangements shone through. I suddenly realized that it’s an indie-rock in the original sense of the word: a band doing what it feels like doing. No trends are being followed here. This is a take-it-or-leave-it enterprise, and it’s all the better for it. The fact that it’s hard for me to describe is good.
That’s not to say that there are no easy points of entry. “Too Old to Die Young” is a jam that could have been on a “with strings!” version of Good News For People Who Love Bad News if M. Ward was singing. Kirk has a low voice, but when he puts it in a higher range, it starts to sound like the vintage-obsessed singer/songwriter. Which is fitting, because Timber Timbre mines old horror/suspense films idioms to create the more out-there pieces of Creep On Creepin’ On.
If hearing a singular songwriting vision fully completed excites you, Timber Timbre’s Creep On Creepin’ On should be on your list to check out. It’s a bit confusing on first listen, but give it some time and it will grow on you. Here’s to indie rock.
One of my best friends and I are huge folk fans. We share some of the same loves (Josh Ritter, Simon and Garfunkel, Iron and Wine), but we diverge pretty hard at one point: he’s a big fan of the British folk sound, and I’m a big fan of the American folk sound. The British folk sound has a very open sound: capturing the sound of rolling hills on the English countryside, the music often abounds with flutes, mandolin, and other optimistic sounds. American folk has a much less optimistic air about it; Dylan’s strum-heavy protest songs and Simon and Garfunkel’s world-weary pop/folk tunes set the stage for the depressing world that American folk resides in.
The Points North take a distinctly British approach to folk, although they hail from Boston. Accordion, flute, delicately fingerpicked guitar, piano, mandolin and more permeate the sound, creating a rollicking sound. But even though these songs are charming, melodic, and sunny, they never become less weighty. Page France was one of the only other bands I know of that was able to capture the balance between giddy music and serious content. And The Points North don’t geek out on a Michael Nau-esque level; they’re much more tempered than that. Stately, as the Brits might say.
If Sufjan Stevens were a little more obsessed with flute, he could have written “Cape Tryon”; the background vocals and general feel of the song would have fit perfectly on Illinoise! If the Low Anthem cracked a smile every now and then, they would be happy to claim the elegaic accordion intro of “I Awoke a Child.” If Nick Drake had found friends to play with him, he could have written half these songs, from the peculiar picking rhythm of “Ever Bright White” to the carefree feel of “Tires & the Pavement.” There are elements of Nickel Creek’s joyful pop (minus the bluegrass), and Novi Split’s goofy swooping musical instruments.
Although I’ve spent most of this album saying who the Points North sound like, that’s not to their discredit. This isn’t an album that causes me to wince every time I hear a musical familiarity. On the other hand, these references (intentional or otherwise) cause excitement and increase enjoyment. The sound isn’t as intimate as my favorite folk bands, due to the myriad of sounds going on, but that’s not what The Points North were shooting for.
The Points North’s I Saw Across the Sound is a unique release, written and recorded with clarity of idea. It’s a very distinctive brand of folk that draws off all the aforementioned bands, but copies none of them. Quite enjoyable and talented.
As a significant portion of the staff is at Austin City Limits, with the most of our other members pining to be there, a list is in order.
Bands Stephen Carradini is Most Excited to See at ACL
5. Daniel Johnston. I am not so much interested in his music as I am in actually witnessing him. Read my post here for more details. In fact, reading that essay again, I really recommend you do read it.
4. The Low Anthem. I really, really can’t wait to hear “Charlie Darwin” live. It’s a heart-breakingly beautiful song. The fact that the Low Anthem will be the first band I see at ACL makes it all the more desirable.
3. K’Naan. I have never been to a rap show where I actually knew the material. This, paired with the fact that K’Naan seems effortlessly effervescent, should prove to make an out-of-this-world show.
2. Bon Iver. The only folk artist who has intrigued and excited me more in the past year is Joe Pug. And I listen to lots of folk. I hope there’s a full band, because “For Emma” without the trumpets would make me sad, and defeat some of the joy of that song. Maybe he can jack the brass section from Los Amigos Invisibles.?
1. The Avett Brothers. This is more of a pilgrimage than a dedication to their music. “Ballad of Love and Hate” and “Murder in the City” (neither of which will get played, I think) are two of my most favorite songs in the world, and because there’s a slim glimmer of a chance that one or both may be played, I’m hustling on over for the entirety of their set. Also, I hear they rip it up live, which will be fun.