Inside of a rubbery, minimalist soundscape front man Ben Wyeth offers a sad and soulful tune with a recycling kind of momentum.
So we’ve hit the indie-rock geographical trifecta this week, hopping from Melbourne to Göteborg to, now, Brooklyn in a matter of screen-inches. Bonus points for the fact that the two guys in the band Hockey are originally from Portland.
Under the spotlight this time is a bass-heavy slab of melancholy electro pop. Inside of a rubbery, minimalist soundscape front man Ben Wyeth offers a sad and soulful tune with a recycling kind of momentum. Two related things, I think, help to create the song’s wistful flow. First, we are in the unrelenting presence of the mighty I-V-vi-IV chord progression, one of pop’s most inevitable-sounding patterns. The verse melody may be slightly differentiated from the chorus melody (although not much), but the I-V-vi-IV structure remains rock solid, bordering on hypnotic, from beginning to end. But: then, the second thing about the song’s alluring movement is that even while working with this most steadfast of chord patterns, the band keeps things twitchy and unsettled, mostly via Jerm Reynolds’ acrobatic bass work. We keep anticipating the right chords in our heads, while often bumping into what feels false or incomplete resolutions; and this, I’m thinking, drives the piece more memorably than a more straightforward unfolding might have. One final thing to notice are those lyrical “echoes” that Wyeth begins offering at 2:19, the last word of each line repeated, in lockstep; the effect is at once edgy and comforting.
Although expanded to a quartet for a time, Hockey has reverted to its roots as a duo, featuring
Wyeth (previously known by his given name, Grubin) and Reynolds. “Defeat on the Double Bass Line” is from the band’s forthcoming album, the curiously named Wyeth IS, which will be self-released digitally in May. As with the other songs this week, you can download the MP3 via the link above, or via SoundCloud.
Warm and blippy, “Unwise” floats in a gently pulsating womb of sound.
Warm and blippy, “Unwise” floats in a gently pulsating womb of sound. There’s a ghostly wash in the background, a quivery layer of synthesizers in the middle, and a simple, gorgeous melody holding the piece together from the top. My ear at first was particularly drawn to the marimba-like synth that ambles its way into a recurring instrumental melody through the course of the introduction. In trying to follow its logic, I bumped into two aural peculiarities. First, there’s an actual guitar in here. Could be wrong about that, but there sure seems to be something scratchy-strummy going in in the middle of the mix. (After listening many different times I finally realized it’s most apparent right in the song’s opening seconds. Somehow I had missed that.) Second, for all the song’s rhythmic allure, there is little if any percussion. This is where electronic sounds can get so fascinatingly nebulous—that fine line between “beat” and “note” that we’ve been living with for the better part of 20 years. Somewhere in this song’s subtle pulse, sounds are rippling with percussive intent, but the amount of what might directly be called percussion is minimal.
Vocally, Josh Mease, the master mind behind Lapland, has borrowed from the Bon Iver school of whispery beauty, minus the claustrophobic edge of the excessively falsettoed. There is in fact a falsetto vocal line here but listen to how it dissolves into the upper end of the mix—as soon as you seek to nail it down, it seems almost to disappear in the woolly ambiance. The lyrics as well are mixed to dissolve upon reaching the ear; after the opening couplet—“I’ve been unwise/Fooled by your disguise”—the songwriter’s words seem subtly to float off into a kind of dream state. And note that this is the third song this week without a real chorus; here, we are hooked by the sturdy interaction of the two basic melody lines that alone support the entire enterprise. (The transition point, first heard at 1:00, is perhaps the song’s most prominent “moment.”)
Mease is a Houston-born, Brooklyn-based musician who put out a solo album in 2009 under his given name but here in 2013 reinvents himself as Lapland. The self-titled “debut” album arrives later this month on the artist-run Brooklyn label Hundred Pockets Records.
photo credit: Susan Pittard
There is something ongoingly makeshift about this song, as if these are the folks who wandered in and started playing, while waiting for the rest of the band to show up.
I immediately enjoy this song’s slinky, semi-minimalist setting—we are shuffled into an offbeat unfolding of 4/4 without a lot of fuss. There is something ongoingly makeshift about this song, as if these are the folks who wandered in and started playing, while waiting for the rest of the band to show up. Front man Adam Pierce, also the drummer, is the first singer we hear, but his half-hidden vocal is really just a tease; the song becomes the property of second vocalist Caroline Lufkin as soon as she opens her mouth (0:42). She’s got one of those voices that feels both gentle and piercing (no pun intended; well, maybe partially intended) at the same time. Their voices work especially well together (although I’m still not sure how his voice ends up quite so mixed down on his last lead line, at 1:12—seems either a mistake or a private joke).
“Contessa” furthermore continues a streak of songs here featuring a compelling instrumental section. It starts as what seems like a standard, post-chorus instrumental break (2:44), although its cool keyboard lines and fractured drumming make it not all that standard in the first place. Around 3:06 it gathers force and leads us, via some extended percussive tension, into a second instrumental episode, this one featuring a lazy series of keyboard lines and (I think) distorted guitar blurps over a repeating but difficult-to-digest drumbeat. We seem to have stumbled upon some very odd sort of jazz combo, and while waiting for the song to re-establish itself, I looked at the clock and realized we’re running out of time. The song just fades. I kind of liked that, for whatever reason.
Based (where else?) in Brooklyn, Mice Parade is one of those “only in indie rock” kinds of outfits—an experimental post-rock ensemble with fluid membership and shifting sonic affiliations that tools along for years in relative obscurity. The constant has been Pierce, previously known (maybe) as drummer in the band The Swirlies. Mice Parade records have been coming out semi-regularly since 1998, with titles like The True Meaning of Boodleybaye and Bem-Vinda Vontade. “Contessa” is the second to last track on the new Mice Parade album, entitled Candela, which was released this week on Fat Cat Records.
photo credit: Oleg Pulemjotov
For a sparsely instrumented song, the vibe is rich and dark.
Languorous and fetching, “Jupiter” is all slow-motion swing and achy melody. For a sparsely instrumented song, the vibe is rich and dark. Kruse has a velvety, k.d. lang-ish voice and she plants it into something of a ghostly setting, with verses sung over a distinctive rhythm section—a nimble, deep-register thumping that’s either a very percussive bass or a very tuneful drum or, maybe, resourceful programming. There’s something of a cartoon graveyard in the sound, a feeling augmented by the minimalist guitar work and an evocative electronic crash or two. The verse takes its time. Do not be in a hurry.
A delicious wash of a drum roll (0:56) deposits us into the chorus, which offers a grand payoff, with that pining, melody and a busier but vague aural landscape that now seems to be incorporating some strings and a new guitar sound or two. This is wide-ranging, lonesome music, and I have no particular idea what she’s singing about (even with her apparent hint; see below), but those repeating words hit me, mysteriously, in the gut: “And seventy years/Is still too soon.” And then, those equally mysterious and yet more disconcerting parting words: “Keep your hat on.” Hit repeat. Keep listening. It’s hard to stop once you start.
I learned about “Jupiter” through a short email sent by Kruse herself. Yes, that’s sometimes how I find out about things. Needless to say I get kind of a ton of email and most of them either try too hard, or too little. This one hit a rare sweet spot. “I’m a girl from Colorado stuck in Brooklyn and this song is about how I’m always trying to get the hell home,” she wrote. Also: “It’s like a meteorite crashing into a Spaghetti Western.” Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t but I liked her email and I like this song. It’s from an EP entitled Winter in Mind that Kruse self-released earlier this month. You can listen to it, and purchase it, from Bandcamp. You can download “Jupiter” via the link above, or at Kruse’s SoundCloud page, where you can also leave a comment for her if that’s your idea of a good time.
There is something deep and mysterious at work here in this simple-sounding mid-tempo rocker, and the depth and mystery is rooted in the by now strange and wonderful fact that the song was recorded live, on analog equipment, in one take.
There is something deep and mysterious at work here in this simple-sounding mid-tempo rocker, and the depth and mystery is rooted in the by now strange and wonderful fact that “When the Rain Comes” was recorded live, on analog equipment, in one take. There is nothing whatever wrong with all the technology being employed in the 21st century to make music but someone has to make it clear that what can be done with our digital tools are many different and potentially enjoyable things but one thing they cannot do, can never do, is what Katie Von Schleicher and friends do here. She and her band of living, breathing, flesh and blood human beings are singing and playing in a room together. Nothing replaces the fire of that. Even when a song unfolds in a kind of a lazy way, even when a song’s coolest hook are a bunch of “la-la-la”s, there is fire here, a fire lit by the inexplicable things that happen when human bodies and souls and voices share time and space together, and when the tools are in the service of capturing the shared effort, not manipulating it.
“When the Rain Comes” is the lead track from Silent Days, a seven-song mini-album recorded at the Soul Shop, an all-analog studio in Medford, Mass. built in 2007 into a 160-year-old barn that had previously housed a piano restoration shop. According to the studio’s web site, “We strive for a clean, open, live sound that truly captures the experience of musicians moving air within a room.” Exactly so. Listen to the vocals—both Von Schleicher’s offhanded lead and the unexpected grandeur of the harmonies in the long-delayed chorus (3:12)—and feel the concrete sense of depth and breadth (and breath) that saturates the recording. And then, best of all, the guitars: both Will Graefe and Gabriel Birnbaum, members of the band Wilder Maker along with Von Schleicher herself, are listed as guitarists here so I don’t know who’s who but I love the kind of guitar sound you hear squirting briefly to the forefront at, say, 0:49 or 0:58—a sound both muted and ringing, a melodious sound that carries within it the flavor of dissonance. A deft, off-kilter solo emerges at 1:50 (Graefe in this case), with the air of notes being decided upon moment to moment, which may almost be true—in addition to the songs being recorded live and in one take, the entire album was recorded in just a few days, without any demos, any pre-written arrangements, any rehearsals. This is hardly a formula that guarantees success but in this case, the gods were smiling. Fine stuff.
Von Schleicher is a singer/songwriter based both in Boston and Brooklyn. Before Wilder Maker she was in the band Sleepy Very Sleepy. I thank her directly for the MP3. You can hear the whole album as well as purchase it via Bandcamp.
photo credit: Dianne Lowry de Ortega
A smoother, poppier version of “Stillness is the Move” by the Dirty Projectors, “Sonsick” succeeds both because of and in spite of its debt to the earlier song.
A smoother, poppier version of “Stillness is the Move” by the Dirty Projectors, “Sonsick” succeeds both because of and in spite of its debt to the earlier song. The similarities are enough to be disconcerting, and yet San Fermin mastermind Ellis Ludwig-Leone seems less interested than Dave Longstreth in being difficult. I consider this a good thing. I liked “Stillness is the Move” quite a lot, but noted at the time that it was one of the more approachable things Dirty Projectors had recorded, and even so was still pretty thorny. “Sonsick” is the work of someone who doesn’t shy from accessibility.
Maybe it’s because Ludwig-Leone is a full-fledged contemporary classical composer as well that he approaches pop for what it is, or can be: a chance to make music people can listen to without an advanced degree. Not that “Sonsick” isn’t its own kind of interesting. (Take note, hipsters of all persuasions: music can be rich and approachable at the same time!) I’m entirely enjoying the more fluent melodic choices Ludwig-Leone makes in the verse than did Longstreth, and find the appearance of an honest-to-goodness sing-along chorus all but intoxicating. Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe, who sing together in the duo Lucius, add energy at once lovely and intense to a story that feels elusive but emotional, not purposefully nonsensical (as was “Stillness”). And do yourself a favor and keep your ears on the arrangement. Ludwig-Leone’s use of horns is novel if not unique in a pop setting; they sneak in via sustained background notes, and are used throughout in a flowing, textural way rather than in “horn chart” flares and bursts. Woodwinds glide in too as some point, creating the feel of a pocket orchestra by the end of the piece.
Officially, San Fermin is a “band” of three singers and one composer; the music on the album is all performed by hired guests. The third singer is Allen Tate, Ludwig-Leone’s friend and long-time collaborator; they met at 16 in rock’n’roll camp and were previously performed as a duo called Gets the Girl. Ludwig-Leone, 23, studied composition at Yale and has worked as an assistant to composer Nico Muhly. “Sonsick” is a song from the group’s self-titled debut album, to be self-released next month. Judging from the imposing bull adorning the album cover, I’m guessing that the band took its name from Pamplona’s famous annual festival. MP3 via Spinner.
A paean to sheer melody, “Untouched and Arrived” is lean, shiny, and compelling.
A paean to sheer melody, “Untouched and Arrived” is lean, shiny, and mesmerizing. There is no fat here, no distracting complications. A straightforward rhythm guitar strum introduces the song, then disappears. There is one verse melody, repeated twice in each verse, and one chorus melody, repeated four times. A semi-bridge is constructed from the repetition of the title phrase, previously employed in the chorus. And that’s really all we’ve got here, and if it’s somehow enough, that tells you how strong these melodies are. The song engulfs me; it is pure pop at its most intoxicating.
“Untouched and Arrived”‘s silvery conciseness may be due to its unusual birth story: Ace Reporter mastermind Chris Snyder spent 2010 writing, recording, and posting one new song every day. He called it the threesixfive project, and however he managed to do it, he emerged at year’s end with an impressive cache of songs to mine for future recordings. “Untouched and Arrived” appeared on day 75. While the production has been altered from the original version, the song is pretty much intact. I can imagine if one is in the middle of writing a new song every single day, for an entire year, there would be limited inclination and/or energy for undue fuss and complication. Snyder had a killer tune at the end of the day, and he resisted the urge to mess with it.
You can hear a few dozen of the threesixfive songs on the project’s web site. They are surprisingly engaging, and I say that as someone suspicious of any kind of song-a-day gimmick. In 2011, Snyder made four EPs from the threesixfive material. The debut Ace Reporter full-length album, Yearling, likewise drawing from the 2010 mother lode, was recorded last year and will be released in February on the Brooklyn-based label Ooh La La Records. Thanks to Magnet Magazine for the MP3.
It’s okay if this sounds somewhat like the Fleet Foxes. Still a really good song.
Already the silvery vibe and agile beat bring to mind a Fleet Foxes song, and then Edward Sturtevant opens his mouth and Robin Pecknold all but tumbles out. But you know what? Doesn’t matter. A band sounding like another band is no sin. First of all, removing ourselves from the bubble of musical over-exposure, a lot of the time, what seems an obvious resemblance to us may not register on other ears. Second, and more important, the only thing that need offend the ears, as far as I’m concerned, is a bad song; good songs, on the contrary, are entirely welcome in whatever guise they choose to arrive. “Minnow” is a wonderful song.
At the root of it is one of those juxtapositions that pop songs can, when they want to, manage so well. The often-discussed pop-song juxtaposition is happy music with sad lyrics, but there are other, subtler ways to juxtapose countervailing moods. In “Minnow” we get a brisk 4/4 beat paired with a mild, bittersweet demeanor—a gentle-but-fast amalgam that creates a distinctive sense of urgency, an urgency that gives itself up to you rather than pushes itself onto you, if that makes sense. And within the consistent, fast-moving framework, the song offers us two differentiated approaches to the beat: the expansive verse, with a swaying feel fostered by an accentuated third beat; and the seemingly faster-moving (but not) chorus, with its double-time rhythm section. Through it all, Sturtevant is almost disconcertingly affecting; he sings with an ache but entirely without the histrionics that generally plague 21st-century American vocalists whenever they try to emote (thank you, yet again, “American Idol”). He is assisted by an able-bodied melody that is at once assertive and evasive, with lines that begin emphatically but end, often, by veering away from resolution.
Time Travelers formed while the foursome were sophomores at Bates College in 2008. They moved (where else?) to Brooklyn, last year. “Minnow” is a song from Vacationland, the band’s second EP, which was released at the beginning of this year but only recently brought to my attention. You can listen to it and/or buy it (for a price of your choosing) via Bandcamp. Thanks to the band for the MP3.
photo credit: Liz Rowley
Introspective and artfully composed, with a chorus both subtle and majestic.
Introspective and artfully composed, “The Lake” is I guess pretty much the opposite of a headbanger, and seems a perfect rejoinder to the previous song, for those who listen to each week’s update as a three-song set (which in fact I recommend!).
This is one of those songs with mysterious power—a power based on small rather than large gestures. Built on a sparse, pulse-like riff (initially played on acoustic guitar, later on keyboard), the delicate verse is augmented by complex vocal countermelodies and deft orchestration. Clare Manchon sings with a rounded, whispery tone, spiced with old-fashioned flutters and an unplaceable almost-accent. She tells a tale of inscrutable departure, vaguely narrated but sharply observed. The chorus nails it all together, at once majestic and subtle, a grand hook built out of nearly nothing: a repeating phrase, different lyrically at the beginning of each line, sung in a lazy, irregular, repeating triplet pattern. It’s intoxicating stuff, especially the second time through (beginning at 2:35), when the chorus extends and extends, the musical repetition highlighting the bottled-up emotion of the melancholy circumstance.
Clare and the Reasons is a Brooklyn-based band led by Clare and Olivier Manchon. Clare is the daughter of veteran musician Geoff Muldaur and sister of singer/songwriter Jenni Muldaur. The band, a shape-shifting ensemble, was previously featured here in 2007. “The Lake” is from the third C&TR album, KR-51, to be released next month on Frog Stand Records. The album was recorded after an eight-month stay in Berlin, much of which time was apparently spent on moped—specifically on a 1968 Schwalbe model KR-51. Thus the name.
Reminiscent of Yo La Tengo’s acoustic side.
Jaunty and homespun, “Mercenary Heart” has the loose-limbed warmth of Yo La Tengo’s acoustic side. Underneath the mild-mannered ambiance, however, is the same kind of songwriting diligence that Soltero has displayed the previous two times they’ve been featured here (in 2004 and 2008).
Although not as extremely positioned as the Cub Scouts song regarding resolution, or lack thereof, singer/songwriter Tim Howard definitely uses unresolved moments to his advantage here, employing melody lines both in the verse and in the chorus that end before resolving. Rather than leaving the ear hanging, however, Howard lets the music resolve after the singing stops, which, in addition to the breezy pace, is what gives the song its sense of relentless motion.
I also like how effectively Howard works with sound, and how he shows that you don’t have to go nuts with strange and novel sonic elements to create compelling textures. Here, Howard works with little more than two guitar sounds and the regular and upper register of his own voice. True to the cliche, less can often be more.
Soltero recorded four albums as a (usually) four-piece band in Boston from 2000 to 2005. The fifth album, in 2008, was pretty much a solo endeavor for Howard, who was then living in Philadelphia. He went on to live in North Carolina and Central America before settling recently in Brooklyn. “Mercenary Heart” is a song from 1943, the latest Soltero album, set for release next week. The album was recorded largely with Alex Drum (who is in fact a drummer), but playing live now the band is back to four pieces. Note that there are two other songs in addition to this one available as free and legal MP3s via Bandcamp.