Fusing the rhythms of The Tallest Man on Earth to the full arrangements of modern folk-style indie bands like The King is Dead-era Decemberists, Sukh’s “Kings” is an immediately comfortable and lovable folk gem.
Ra Ra Riot has me dancing like a fool to Prince-style falsetto in my office. Also, the phrase “robot hearts” appears. Yes. Yes, indeed.
Ugly Kids Club has been a bit of a chameleon, exploring mega-fuzzed out pop a la Sleigh Bells in as many ways as they can. “Get It All” gives their crunch a bit of new wave touch and a bit of AFI-style anthemic gloom.
Ben Fisher‘s Roanoke EP comes on the heels of his 2011 debut album Heavy Boots and Underwoods. The latter showed flashes of brilliance and foreshadowed a bright future for folk-singer Fisher; Roanoke is where he starts to build on that foundation. Since The Tallest Man on Earth’s nasally voice is a high price of entry, opener “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” becomes instantly likable by aping Kristian Matsson’s carefree strum and pairing it with Fisher’s low voice. “Dublin Blues Pt. 2” puts some forlorn but interesting lyrics into a country mold, with good results. But it’s “Hibernation” that sticks with me, as the gently fingerpicked tune sounds like a calmed-down Tallest Man in both the vocals and the guitar. The melodic flourishes that fill it out give a sense of Josh Ritter-esque gravitas, while not feeling too much like a Ritter tune. The title track is a high-desert tune with pedal steel, shakers and a wide-open feel; “To Conclude…” is a quiet strummer, but the vocals push a little hard against the gentle track.
That push and pull between gentle and intense is where Fisher lives on this EP (his bio says that he “tends to bellow”), but he doesn’t turn gentle songs into roars (like Damien Rice) or speed them way up (The Tallest Man on Earth). Instead, he fills his gentle performances with a confident energy. It’s a tough thing to explain, but that’s why it’s great: it sets Fisher apart. I’m looking forward to more tunes from Fisher, as Roanoke is a satisfying chapter in Fisher’s songwriting that points towards more good in the future.
White Blush‘s bedroom electronica is of the claustrophobic, moody and sparse type. I’m not too familiar with the genre, but I checked it out due to the Portishead connections I heard in the sound. Carol Rhyu’s music is much more mellow and free-flowing than Portishead’s lock-step trip-hop, but both share the ability to traverse in dark sounds without sounding particularly evil or sad. They just like hanging out in the nighttime, it seems. “Without You” builds from some fragmented melodic elements into a swirling, pensive tune. “808 Myst” is an eerie sort of chiptune piece that traffics in the same moody vein as “Without You,” while “Wait” is a stark tune that strips her sound down to vocals, a casio and soft rhythmic thumps. It’s oddly intriguing, just as the other two tunes. White Blush has delivered three beautiful tunes here; fans of ambient or other quiet electro would really enjoy this.
Independent Clauses has always been a strange beast. I never intended it to be a music blog; I wanted it to be the starting point of a Pitchfork-style website or a Paste-style magazine. So when we did things differently, my thoughts ran thus: “Who cares? We weren’t trying to be like them anyway.” That’s why we would run best-of lists in February, eschew posting MP3s and publish very long articles.
But as people go, so do dreams. Just like mortality isn’t such a terrible bag if you’re ready for it, neither is the death of dreams. Independent Clauses is never going to be the size of Pitchfork, Paste or even dearly departed Delusions of Adequacy (whom I have worked for and dearly love). And that’s perfectly okay.
To that end, it’s starting to look more and more like an MP3 blog over here, as I am accepting what Independent Clauses has become and embracing it. I’m considering getting some extra hosting for 2011 and throwing down d/ls to applicable tunes on posts. I’m also going to redesign this site as an mp3 blog, then not touch the aesthetics till 2012. I’m also going to start using the first person pronoun instead of the third person. It’s just me here now.
Also, I will cover more Pitchfork-level indie music than I have previously. Independent Clauses used to focus exclusively on undiscovered music, and I will still devote much of my time there. One does not throw the baby out with the bathwater, after all; there will just be more Frightened Rabbit and The Mountain Goats in the bath.
As part of the transition, I will be posting two best-of lists this year: one overall best of, and one of releases Independent Clauses reviewed this year. In the future, I will post one list. Without further adieu, here’s the overall top ten best releases this year.
4. The Suburbs – Arcade Fire. Music world dominance: headlining Madison Square Garden, nominated for album of the year, taking number one on the Billboard Charts. Even if I didn’t like this album it would be in my top ten. It’s a pretty great album, though, even if it does have a few too many ripoffs of The National on it.
5. This Is Happening – LCD Soundsystem. Indie world dominance: James Murphy prophesied his title and then backed it up with tracks that made it so. Easily my favorite LCD album, and “You Wanted a Hit” is vying for “favorite LCD song” status.
6. The Age of Adz – Sufjan Stevens. The man can do whatever he wants and still turn out pure gold. This is easily the most mind-blowing release of the year: it’s hard for me to listen to in heavy rotation because it’s so complex.
Of the twenty bands in my quest, the newest addition is The Tallest Man on Earth. A masterful cover of Paul Simon’s “Graceland” on Hype Machine first introduced me to Kristian Matsson’s finger-picked folk guitar a little over four months ago. My Last.FM says that I’ve listened to it 158 times since that first introduction, so it’s safe to say that it hooked me.
Matsson’s cover of “Graceland” enamors me because it improves upon a classic. The Tallest Man on Earth remains true to the original song structure but varies dramatically in arrangement and delivery, resulting in a more cohesive tune.
The original “Graceland” is a remarkably conflicted tune. Simon puts forth optimism in the jaunty arrangements whileinserting world-weary lyrics. He tries to have it both ways, and for that reason I’ve always thought that song was particularly annoying.
Matsson’s version redeems the song by syncing up the two contrasting moods. Stripping the tune to its bare minimums (1 voice, 1 guitar) draws the lyrics to the forefront, placing the burden of meaning on the wildly conflicted words. “I’m going to Graceland” transforms from a statement of fact (in Simon’s version) to a last hope (in Matsson’s).
Matsson’s deft guitar work grants an immediacy to the songwriting that the more languid pace of the original “Graceland” could not provide. His ragged, unrestrained voice heightens the sense of urgency originated by the guitar. These two elements sync up with the quiet resignedness inherent in the original lyrics and turn the song into one of overt desperation.
This tension (melodic, rhythmic, and lyrical) culminates in Matsson braying out the titular phrase as the dramatic hinge point of the song that Simon intended it to be. “I’m going to Graceland” doesn’t fit with “She comes back to tell me she’s gone” or “Everybody sees you’re blown apart,” and that’s the point. It’s all the narrator’s got left. It sounds like Kristian Matsson’s life is hanging on the place of “Graceland,” and it subsequently feels like the listener’s is too.
Mostly artists show different sides or possibilities of a song with a cover; rare is the artist that improves a song with a cover. Johnny Cash via Rick Rubin did it consistently, but he’s about the only one I’d found until Matsson’s “Graceland.”
With a cover like that, there’s no way to not seek out his original tunes. I did, and instantly fell in love. All the drama and emotional power of “Graceland” was packed into his own compositions. I told my best friend about The Tallest Man on Earth, and he was equally as enthralled. When I found out The Tallest Man was swinging through Dallas, I called up my friend and we set up the trip.
After getting held up just enough to miss opener S. Carey (so saddened by this), I dropped in right before Matsson’s set on Friday, September 17 at the House of Blues’ Cambridge Room. I had low expectations; I wanted Matsson to be a great live show, but I know that it’s often hard for people to translate recorded performances into live power.
From the opening notes to the last fading melody, he proved that he was up to the task. His voice sounds even more urgent live, and his ability to nail even the most complex of guitar lines while singing sent chills up my spine. Whether playing old favorites like “The Gardner” or brand-spanking-new tunes like “The Dreamer” and a revamped “Like the Wheel,” he commanded the audience with excellent musicianship and confident stage presence.
The amount of fans in Dallas who knew the words to his songs visibly surprised him; he was taken aback (literally, he stepped backwards in shock) during “I Won’t Be Found” by the vocal fan response, but generally grew into the understanding that Dallas collectively has his back. He even dropped his vocals out of a few lines in “King of Spain” and let the audience sing them to him. His visible appreciation corresponded with his audible appreciation, as he thanked the audience multiple times for coming.
The raw power and emotive force that drive “Graceland” drove many of his other tunes, including a particularly powerful “Where Do My Bluebird Fly?” and a rousing “The Wild Hunt.” This, paired with his confident showmanship and easy swagger, made the evening delightful. Even though he didn’t play the cover that got me hooked on his nimble songs, the show was not disappointing in any other way.
A Tallest Man on Earth show is thoroughly recommended for the casual or hardcore fan. I can with glee and fond memories cross this one off the list of the Top Twenty Quest.
I blew up my computer a few weeks ago, resulting in the lack of posts. I apologize for the deathly pallor that seemed to settle over Independent Clauses. It’s been a pretty crazy few weeks. I get my new computer Friday, and we should be rolling again.
I love and hate live shows. Transcendent, life-affirming and soul-expanding are all phrases I have lavished on excellent sets; soul-crushing, abrasive and interminable are all words with which I have belittled terrible performances. A thoroughly average act skews more to the interminable side, which means the room for error is large.
Making matters even more sketchy is this all-too-common occurrence: that band with lovely recordings which smushes my expectations into the dirt with a reprehensible live show. One band that shall remain nameless suckerpunched me twice: the first set I saw was so awful that I incorrectly passed it off as “an off night” and felt optimistic going in to the second set a year later, which ended up being exponentially worse. I don’t listen to that band any more.
And yet, through all of this potential for letdown, I keep anticipating live shows (I’m resisting a comparison to love and relationships). That anticipation has translated into a new and ongoing project: I’m going on a quest to see all top twenty of my most-listened-to bands (according to my Last.FM). Here’s the list, complete with current statuses. Bold indicates I have plans to see them before the end of the year.
1. The Mountain Goats (1,063 plays) – Seen twice, once in Norman and once in Dallas 2. Sufjan Stevens (1,010 plays) 3. Novi Split (597 plays)
4. Coldplay (490 plays) – Seen once: Ford Center, Oklahoma City.
5. Damien Jurado (487 plays) – Seen once: Opolis, Norman.
6. Joe Pug – Seen once: The Conservatory, Oklahoma City.
7. Low Anthem – Seen once: Rose State Auditorium, Midwest City.
8. Elijah Wyman
9. Death Cab for Cutie – Seen once: Cain’s Ballroom, Tulsa.
10. Relient K – Seen 4-6 times, various Tulsa and Oklahoma City locations.
11. Josh Caress
12. Owl City – Seen once: McCasland Fieldhouse, University of Oklahoma, Norman.
13. Josh Ritter
14. Rocky Votolato
15. Switchfoot – Seen once: Cain’s Ballroom, Tulsa.
16. Bleach – Seen 3 times: various Tulsa locations. RIP 17. Mumford and Sons
18. The Avett Brothers – Seen twice: Austin City Limits 2009; Rose State Auditorium, Midwest City. 19. The Tallest Man on Earth 20. Before Braille – RIP
And to get myself back into writing about music, I’ll be writing about each of the bands, in order.