Death Cab for Cutie’s Transatlanticism was an important guide in my transition from pop-punk to indie-rock (and then, via “Passenger Seat,” to acoustic music). I pulled it out earlier this summer to find that it sounds more like a pop-rock record than I remember. The songs are in no way diminished, but they feel noisier than I wanted them to be–I was looking for the distinctively indie-pop set of aesthetics (soft sounds, crisp edges, less clang, more clatter). But it’s an indie-pop-rock record, probably one of the best. We can get into a discussion of power-pop (early Weezer) vs. indie-pop-rock (Tokyo Police Club), but the point is that Young Mister‘s self-titled indie-pop-rock record feels like the direct successor to Gibbard et al’s masterpiece work, from its breezy California milieu, expansive take on indie-pop, and straightforward-yet-arresting lyrics.
Young Mister blasts put of the starting gate with “The Best Thing,” where Stephen Fiore marshals a sunshiny a.m. radio guitar radio riff, bouncy bass, and wryly honest vocal delivery to apologize for oversleeping his girlfriend’s hour of need: “I heard your car stalled on the interstate / I hope you got where you were going.” The chorus is a bubble of air breaking the surface, a rush of horns and lightness after the restrained verses. “Would It Kill You” and “Pasadena” continue this chipper, breezy pop vibe; the tunes pop out of the speakers with clarity and confidence. The deft hand with which oft-subtle musical and emotional shifts is handled shows Fiore as a songwriter with great skills. The shifts also echo the great sweeps of “Tiny Vessels,” “We Looked Like Giants,” and even “Transatlanticism” itself.
Elsewhere the tunes tend toward the expansive rather than the speedy, just as in its predecessor album: “Sound of Settling” is the single, but “Title and Registration” is the home base. Fiore gives “Would It Kill You” and “Take Me Away” some edge to keep things fresh into the album’s depths, but the composure of quieter tunes like “American Dream Come True,” “Carolina,” and “Everything Has Its Place” makes them shine brightest. “American Dream Come True” is a mid-tempo pop song with beautiful guitar work, a lovely vocal performance, and a devastating lyrical turn. It recalls Fountains of Wayne’s more pensive work. “Carolina” is a rueful, mourning break-up tune, wishing a lost lover the best. The sonic palette isn’t that different from “American Dream,” but the distinctive, anthemic chorus moves it into “songs other people might want to cover” territory. Dropping everything to its bare bones,”Everything Has Its Place” creates a floating world couched in delicate reverb, very precise melodies, and a deep sense of romanticism. It’s as if the sparseness of “Lightness” and the emotional ballast of “Transatlanticism” were merged into one daydreamy tune.
The lyrical punch of “American Dream Come True” is not an isolated incident: Fiore is an excellent lyricist. He’s as comfortable singing about “the fucked-up systems that failed you now” (“Would It Kill You”) as he is petitioning Christ for grace (“Carolina”) and sighing at the incredible effort of dating when you’re not in your early ’20s anymore (“Take Me Away,” “Anybody Out There”). His turns of phrase are clever, his topics are more than your standard stock, and his work is highly polished. But the lyrics don’t stray into the esoteric or the hyper-specific; he grounds his lyrics firmly in well-observed and carefully described experience. It’s the rare indie-pop-rock album that can add to the quality of the album with the lyrical effort, but Fiore has certainly done that here.
Young Mister is so carefully and meticulously crafted that it doesn’t show any of the seams. An immense amount of effort went into making indie-pop-rock songs that sound effortless and natural. You can sing along with these songs, write the lyrics on your bedroom wall, or just let the experience wash over you–all the things that my friends and I did with Transatlanticism. Whatever you choose to do, you should start by giving the album a thorough listen. Fans of pop music won’t be disappointed. I’ll be spinning this one for a long time. Highly recommended.
Songs:Ohia plays a critical role in my musical history, somewhat akin to the lack of respect Bob Welch gets for keeping Fleetwood Mac together until they could get around to recording awesome things.
In my transition from “Super Good Feeling” to “Get Lonely,” Songs:Ohia was one of two artists who would entice me to jump from the poppy precipice of Transatlanticism to the downtempo jeremiads of Damien Jurado and The Mountain Goats. Without the influence of those latter two bands, this blog would probably not still exist. So, indirectly, you and I both owe a debt to Jason Molina (and David J of Novi Split, who was the second guide).
The emotions that Elephant Micah‘s Louder Than Thou conjures up in me match almost exactly the ones I felt while listening to Songs:Ohia’s “The Lioness” as a teenager. This is an incredible statement: I had chalked up this intense connection with S:A’s slow, weighty songs up to “my first time.” For a band to repeat in me that sort of emotion amid my now-steady diet of folk and singer/songwriter is stunning.
Pre-Magnolia ELectric Co. Jason Molina originally intrigued me for several reasons. I am intrigued by Joseph O’Connell (the songwriter behind EM) for the same reasons:
1. He is very talented, although the simple musicianship bears no ostentatious markers of technical skill.
2. He imbues songs with honest, weighty emotion.
3. He is unafraid to play a slow, quiet song for a very long time.
I started to feel the old longing during the second track, “Won These Wings.” A slowly thumped tom and sparse yet terse notes on an acoustic guitar create the backdrop for O’Connell’s plaintive voice; far-off background vocals and some sort of woodwind form intermittent ghostly asides. The whole thing just feels heavy; but more than that, it feels compelling. Instead of being wallpaper music, this is gripping. You know those movies where the soundtrack is so integral and vital that it should be credited as a supporting actor? The 7:25 “Won These Wings” is that sort of tune.
The length here is notable in the context of everyone else’s work, but not so much in comparison to the rest of the album. The six songs on Louder Than Thou run just over 36 minutes, meaning that one EM song averages the span of two pop songs. The shambling, uplifting “My Cousin’s King,” the shortest song, clocks in at 4:29. It could have gone longer and been totally fine: these songs sprawl, and they’re all the better for it.
That’s the lesson to be learned from “If I Were a Surfer,” which is the song that caused me to think of Songs:Ohia for the first time in years. The strum pattern isn’t complicated, the drum part isn’t difficult, and the vocal line isn’t virtuosic. But the parts come together in such a heart-rending way that none of that matters. “Let it lie where it lands / I’ll start all over again,” O’Connell sings with female harmony over a graceful, whirring organ. It’s no lyric shooting for the heart of reality, nor is it a hugely orchestrated epic moment. It is, instead, a testament to patience, dignity and craft. It is beautiful.
The skill and hard work it takes to write songs of such seemingly effortless elegance is hard to overstate. Elephant Micah‘s Louder Than Thou is not louder than much, really. But it is far more resonant than most, and that’s why I can’t stop listening to it.
I grew from my pop-punk roots into a deep admiration of Sufjan Stevens’ intricate arrangements and Death Cab for Cutie’s use of all band members on Transatlanticism. Sufjan is self-explanatory, but the latter album’s careful maximization of every band member’s skills is now something I seek out in music. If you can apply both of these elements to pop-punk, well, that’s nigh on heroic.
Signals Midwest is that band. Latitudes and Longitudes is easily the most carefully crafted album of punk rock I have ever heard. I don’t even want to call it punk rock, because the audience for this band is far greater than guys and girls who love three-chord stomping (and trust me, there’s great love for that in my heart). Signals Midwest has put together a statement, and that’s impressive.
It starts toward the end of opener “In Tensions,” which is a perfectly-chosen descriptive title to set the tone. The band drops out, and vocalist Maxwell Stern is left alone over an finger-picked acoustic guitar: “I was counting the miles/You were counting the days/And it’s strange that the numbers we wanted/were moving in opposite ways.” The lyric and melody appears twice more in the album: once in the next track “Monarchs” and once in closer “The Weight and The Waiting.” So there’s an intro, then a re-statement of theme, then the body, then a reaffirmation of theme as the closer? Yes, this is that organized.
The sound is incredible as well. Two guitarists, a bassist and a drummer give all they’ve got on these ten tracks: Rarely does the band drop into four-on-the-floor, pound-it-out mode. The songs all feature a rhythmically and melodically unique lead guitar line, backed up by rapidfire bass and heavily patterned drums. “Family Crest” is mind-boggling in its construction, as each member seems to be maxing out his capabilities. And it’s not even the best song, because technical proficiency is only one of the things that makes this band. Oh, and just to overawe you some more: they recorded most of this thing live.
But the melodic capability and corresponding vocal fury really set this apart from other bands. Single “The Quiet Persuader” opens up with a neat guitar line that recalls early 2000s pop-punk before snapping into martial rhythms and delivering the lead to Stern, who just rips the song apart with his passionate vocal performance. His voice is permanently halfway between singing and yelling, in that zone that seems exclusively the domain of punk rock. He may persuade quietly, but that’s the only thing he does without volume. “I Was Lost” has a wiry groove to it; “Memo” is crushing in its tension and release. “Limnology” is a how-to on mid-tempo rock.
But Latitudes and Longitudes isn’t all throwdowns: “January and Seven” is a poignant, acoustic ballad that doesn’t go maudlin or sterile, as is the sin of many punk acoustic tracks. It’s a clear-eyed acknowledgment of the toughness of being. Turns around every corner: closer “The Weight and The Waiting” casually throws in a horn section to cap off the album. It’s a perfect way to sum up the message of the album: it’s a tough life, especially when your friends are far away. But when those friends are all in one place, it’s a celebration of life. And with the hope of those future meetings in place, we press on.
Latitudes and Longitudes is what happens when four men at the top of their game get together and think hard about how to best use their skills. This is easily one of the best of ’11 in any genre, and I’ll be listening to this long into ’12. Do yourself a favor and check it out.
Nathan Leigh’s glitch ep features “Let’s Get Lost (Alternate Mix),” whose soaring melody and piano-led pensiveness stuck in my head for several weeks. If Owl City absorbed some Transatlanticism-era Death Cab moods, he’d be making moving tunes like “Let’s Get Lost,” as Nathan Leigh operates in a similar electronic pop idiom (but without much of the kitsch and bubblegum).
The rest of the tunes fare decently, but none stand out in the long run. Many of them are heavy on the glitchy production of the name, and the heavy static hits hurt my enjoyment of them. “Breathing in Fast” is an exception, an upbeat pop song that evokes Cobra Starship or Like Clockwork. Overall, it’s decent, with a shining star among the rest.
Death Cab for Cutie did not write an album between The Photo Album and Transatlanticism that spanned the gap between the dreamy, distorted qualities of the former and the humble, direct pop of the latter. They just pretty much abandoned one for the other. It’s not an issue any more, though; Papermoons’ New Tales fills the gap with eerie precision.
Matt Clark’s voice is exactly the same as Ben Gibbard’s in pitch, tone, and inflection. His songs fluctuate between fuzzed-out indie bliss and knocked-out indie sadness, much in the DCFC way. I am not kidding or exaggerating: this sounds like a lost Death Cab record.
And I think it’s awesome. There are people who will hate it because of that, but I am glad this record exists.
“Bad Notes” features a calmly picked acoustic guitar, far-off harmonica, high-pitched pad synths and hushed vocals for an incredibly intimate listening experience. The lazy stops and starts of “Holy Cow” make me feel as if I’ve stumbled into Clark’s bedroom after he just woke up. “Car Lights” slows it down even farther, making each chord into a gift. It’s gorgeous. There’s no other real term for it.
The ten songs of New Tales are completely and totally devoid of bravado, irony, posturing, anger, grittiness, psychedelic tendencies, or noise. They are full of lush orchestrations, honest performances, beautiful melodies and a sense of wonder. This album doesn’t break new ground, but it does claim the ground it’s on for its own. Whether or not you’re excited about these particular claimgrabbers depends on your feelings toward Death Cab. I like it a lot.
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.