Reviews; always on the lookout...
I enjoy listening to folk music. I have fond memories of listening to Harry Chapin and can remember exactly where I was when I first heard John Prine’s “Hello In There”, an ode to cross-generational disconnect, or maybe just an ode to sad old people, which resonates with me more the older I get. That’s why I was very excited to listen to and review Caleb Orion’s Hendiadys, with its acoustically driven singer/songwriter style.
The opening track of Hendiadys begins with thin, raspy guitar strumming that has a casual quality, a sort of nonchalant playfulness without being ironic. Titled “A Rafting Song” it drifts through a simple melody with its loose instrumental voicing, with each transitional scrape of the guitar strings heard. The lyrics mirror the straightforward melody, every phrase ending in cutely completed rhymes, mostly couplets. This type of pleasantly sedate song evokes warm feelings of lying in a shaded hammock on a summer day, the smell of grass, or the sound of insects buzzing by. Given this, it seems fitting that a quote from the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would be included on the bandcamp page for “A Rafting Song.”
All of the tracks off the album include such a quote, whether from well-known novels or poems, or in some cases original poem fragments written by the artist. These cast an interesting light on each track, sometimes revealing obtuse wrinkles and sometimes reinforcing something more direct. In general I think they are effective signposts for each song, and some are very interesting inclusions, but I don’t feel most of these songs really demand this level of signaling.
At the heart of most great folk music are typically great lyrics, and unfortunately the lyrics on Hendiadys for the most part are straightforward, lacking the stylized irony of other modern folk artists like Bill Callahan or the dense imagery of someone like Joanna Newsom. The second track on the album, for example, is pretty campy. I was hopeful that it would remind me of John Prine, a folk artist who was able to write playful songs that felt honest and interesting. With Prine there was a sense of walking into a conversation between old friends, where the inside jokes aren’t known, but the fondness for them, and the familiarity with them is clear. Unfortunately this song’s lyrics don’t feel deeply personal in the voyeuristic way many of Prine’s lighter songs do. This kind of intimacy is missing in “Three Best Friends”, and instead replaced with a very formulaic, almost mechanical, lyrical structure.
The fourth track illuminates further issues with lyrics, with its simple couplet rhyming pattern, and fairly unimaginative content. The recording quality of Caleb’s voice is also drastically different than most other tracks. It sounds like he was sitting too close to the microphone, muffling his voice and creating a melodramatic quality. The unevenness of the vocal quality between tracks is very jarring, but also very indicative of the overall unevenness of the album. Not only is the recording quality hit or miss, but so is the quality and complexity of lyrics and musical structure.
This unevenness strikes me as a symptom of not enough editing, which is a shame since the peaks of the album are actually quite nice. However there are clearly songs, such as “Three Best Friends” and “The Numbers Song” which needed more refinement in terms of lyrics and music, and songs like “Discuss” and “Carthage is Burning” which required more refinement in the recording process. There are also more successful tracks like “The Statue” and “Colors I’ve Never Seen” that have issues with editing. In “The Statue” the lyrics are quite nice but the instrumentation is too simple, and the guitar part too repetitive, so that after a few minutes the song turns into a drone. “Colors I’ve Never Seen” doesn’t have the same issue with its instrumentation as that is much more dynamic, however the lyrical structure this time is very simplistic and repeats so many times that again the song turns into a drone. With all of this unevenness the album construction really suffers, as it’s hard to find any real cohesion or flow between the tracks. A good song will build and finish, then lead into a song with an entirely different recording quality, lacking of emotional depth, and less rich musical components.
There are however certainly good songs. As I wrote earlier at the heart of most great folk music are typically great lyrics, and there are songs on this album that exhibit a great deal of lyrical depth. On the third track, “Ladybugs Everywhere”, the lyrics seem to roll around in a densely packed lullaby of unexpected depth. Phrases like “potted plant brigade”, “laughing circus song”, and “princess party hat” create a colorful landscape for the artist to deftly slip thoughtful lyrics into without being heavy-handed. Lines like “all the dreams you’ve made, and which of the ones have stayed” and “the past is a problem only fools flip their faces toward” are pointedly sung with the same easy tone as the rest of the song. It forced me to consider whether the artist is imploring the subject of the song to continue in blissful ignorance of the past, or whether the goal is to point out what is missed without reflection.
This lyrical depth continues throughout the album, sometimes as direct lyrics that feel personal and accessible, and sometimes as cryptic and tightly packed songs, that ask a listener to contemplate the meaning of a somewhat convoluted phrase. The final track of the album even pulls from the story of Pygmalion, the sculptor who prayed for a statue he made to come alive, only to have the statue do just that. Lyrically Hendiadys grows as it progresses, with the later tracks being the most inspired, drawing from literary references, using evocative language, and really showing instead of telling the audience.
Musically there are high points as well. “Ladybugs Everywhere”, for example, has a strangely beautiful sonic landscape filled with plunking xylophone, lightly played guitar arpeggios, layered vocals, and even a kazoo. It’s playful without being obnoxious, and this whimsical tone is repeated again on “Vidamo Sei Leyonan”, however this time it’s slower, more thoughtful, reminding me vaguely of the soul-crushingly beautiful Safe As Houses by Parenthetical Girls, which utilized a similar lo-fi playful musical style coupled with emotive and personal lyrics.
The sixth track carries this comparison even further, as “Some Set of Teeth” utilizes the same sub-textual manic passion that courses through Safe As Houses. This is one of the strongest songs off the album both musically and vocally. The instrumentals are layered and nicely produced, with the highlight being the unconventional use of the sound of a live patch cable contacting the guitar pickups and being run through a pitch-shift. It’s inventive and well placed within a song that is seething barely contained emotion.
The vocals on this track match the emotion of the music as well, reminiscent of the vocal styling of Zac Pennington, without the extreme affectation that he is prone to. It was particularly interesting as I feel Caleb effectively walked a fine line of expressing the subtly desperate emotion of the track without slipping into the melodramatic.
It’s clear to me that a lot of thought went into this album, and especially many of the songs’ lyrics, but that the effort is uneven. With a title like Hendiadys, which is a figure of speech, I was expecting a very literary musical journey, and with many of the tracks my expectations were met. There are songs filled with richly textured language. However the instrumentation and general songwriting does not seem to be as nuanced and well understood, and there is an unfinished nature to many of the songs. Caleb Orion seems to me to be a storyteller who is capable of telling compelling stories. If he is able to match his lyrical talent with a more refined and complex musical sense, and write with more consistency, I feel he is capable of making some very interesting music.
You can find the full album here: http://music.caleborion.com/album/hendiadys-that-and-this
It’s been a long hiatus but starting next week I’ll resume posting album reviews on commonswiftband.com. The first time around I reviewed half a dozen bands submitted through this post on Reddit, and will attempt this approach again. Here is the current post on Reddit. My intention, as stated in both posts, is not to review popular music that already garners a fair amount of critical writing and attention. I’m interested in reviewing very independent/underground/garage music, the type of music that doesn’t get a wide audience, with the hope of helping out a few fellow artists by trying to give detailed and thoughtful criticism, and maybe helping them find a few new fans.
“In early 2011 Egg Leggs was born. Even though they didn’t have an official band name until while in studio, they kept their priorities straight and continued making music. The first few months were rough trying to find their niche, locking themselves in a five foot by five foot room working for hours. Through the early stress and beginning foundation their sound finally found itself.” This is what Egg Leggs wrote to describe themselves, and after listening to their first album, “ELEP”, it’s easy to hear the obvious passion for what they are producing, and also the rough edges that come along with a young band making an album quickly. There are definite signs of inspiration, and Egg Leggs is certainly a very musically playful band that isn’t afraid to grab influence from any genre that they feel speaks to them to try and craft truly original and inventive songs with some success.
ELEP opens with a slick vocal sample accompanied by stripped down stuttering drums that pulse organically and have just the right amount of space left for the vocalist, who has a very versatile, albeit unconventional voice which is capable of punk-inspired shouts, falsetto crooning, Isaac Brock style sing-talking, and a fairly wide emotional range. It’s one of the best elements of Egg Leggs and in the first track the vocals get to shine and the lead singer shows some excellent nuance. After settling into the smooth electronic post-punk sound Egg Leggs transitions to an alternative indie rock sound more similar to The Shins than Modest Mouse, and from there continues to jump between styles; punk, electronic, indie alternative, folky blues, and straight progressive rock. The whole experience is very modern and well composed, with the transitions feeling intentional and gave me high hopes for this album.
Unfortunately my hopes were dashed quickly by the next track which felt slapped together. Between the reggae inspired bass line and the early 70’s psychedelic guitar riff very little musical elements felt as originally inspired as the first track. The vocals still sparkle in their own unique way, breaking the mundane smoothness with emotional rawness, but the structure of the track is fairly uninspired, which was quite a let-down from the first song which really felt unique and complex.
From there the album continues down this more traditionally structured path, with songs that rarely vary from conventional structures and don’t have quite the cohesiveness or originality of the first track. There are however some real moments of inspiration to be discovered in most of the remaining tracks. Bridges features nice falsetto singing with the strained exasperated yelling coming in and out. New American Dogma was actually a very enjoyable track in the style of Modest Mouse or Bright Eyes circa 2002, even though there is nothing really new in this track musically or instrumentally.
The final track Anagnorisis finally breaks the pattern of non-progressing music, although it travels in very safe directions, with an anthem like quality to it. The track has a nice guitar riff, although it never reaches the heights it could have, given the space it was granted in the song. It’s somewhat reminiscent of something Annie Clark might choose for her guitar solos which is most assuredly a good thing. It’s an ending to an album that leaves me with more questions than answers. The first song feels like a true fusion of ideas and the ending guitar track shows that there is substantial creative potential; however in the middle are some very stale choices and ideas that feel half-baked.
The production is good and these are clearly solid musicians. Lyrically it seemed to me that Legg Eggs is wanting to weave a web of sneering cynicism, and they succeed in capturing the spirit of this if not the content with lines like “And I am blackened by false truth.”, and “Disappearing friends mean nothing if they’re running from the ones that they love.”. The issue here is that the content is missing. With lines like these I’m expecting a revelation about man, or at least about the songwriter to follow, but I don’t feel that depth or investment here. In some tracks it seems like the vocalist is rambling, or at least not choosing his words precisely.
This feels to me like a young band that has room to grow, but as they advance in their musicianship and songwriting abilities they have the potential to make a really important album. With its genre-fusing style, and sometimes raw emotion, there are moments of ELEP that are truly captivating, and there is a sense that the fractured nature of its composition makes a statement on the nature of musical genres being constantly in flux.
Overall though this is a great first entry, and I’m exciting to see what they do next.
You can find Egg Leggs full album here: http://eggleggs.bandcamp.com/album/elep
This is not my musical strength, as I listen to electronic music less than conventional instrumentation, however there are some things that I’d like to discuss. Back in the early days of electronic music it was enough to create new sounds, to test the tools and instruments because they were still not very well understood. Therefore a lot of the music was basic from a structural standpoint, and the sound creation was part of the artistry. Nowadays almost every sound has been generated, and the artistry is in crafting an interesting song with the sounds by finding unique ways to combine them.
The artists that I feel do this well are usually of two types. One would be someone like Boards of Canada who combined sounds people did not expect to be together to create unusual soundscapes, usually also incorporating interesting musical theory elements with their time signatures, tempo changes, and melodies. The other type of artists are those like the Beta Band and The Knife that are looking to take electronic sounds and infuse them into other musical genres to establish an interesting musical experience or to accent a point. In the case of The Knife it seems their electronic elements are used to highlight the sense of polished violence that runs throughout our current culture and reflects upon us as a species, one where hate and ignorance can be masked in graceful, perfectly composed bodies, but is still underneath nothing but repulsive.
… read more »
The Monikers’ 5-track Taliesin West has a nice mix of instrumentation that helps to create occasionally well-textured soundscapes, with familiar alternative rock guitar tones, straight rock beats and bass, and the infusion of progressive rock piano melodies. At their best The Monikers deliver music that instantly feels familiar and pleasing.
The first track reminds me strongly of Vampire Weekend, with an instrumental opening like “Horchata,” and the vocal cadence to match. From there it adds the expected playful guitar licks, and a consistent presence of auxiliary percussion. It’s a pleasant enough track, although lyrically it’s rather vanilla. There is also a somewhat unexpected tail that takes the sound in a direction more reminiscent of Pet Sounds.
The second track continues to show an influence of late Paul Simon, although it takes a slightly harder approach with more focus being placed on the drums and guitar with mixed results. I wish they would stick with a more pop oriented style as they are capable of crafting very catchy pop melodies and when they combine this with soundscapes that feel light and playful they are seemingly at their best.
If someone told me that the third track was actually an unreleased Ben Folds song from the late nineties I would have believed them. This feels incredibly derivative, although it is fairly well executed with nicely done swells, rapid piano arpeggios, and good dynamic sticking, however the vocals are way back in the mix, effectively burying the lead instrument.
From here The Monikers give us a slow folk waltz, which was what I had expected the entire album was going to be considering the album art and track names. It’s certainly fine for a confessional folk song, think early Shins but with far less lyrical finesse. My main problem with this track is actually that it builds and falls in a very routine pattern and probably doesn’t need to be as long as it is.
The fifth track is where The Monikers are really at their finest for me. Here is a song with interesting musical parts, a fusion of traditional folk elements with alternative rock. The song breaths a certain toxic nature with its constant jabbing of anxious violins and a low humming bass. From this beginning it moves to a chorus of rather angry rock that fits nicely, jarring the listener out of any sense of safety. The bridge and tail then resolve this violence into a very classically composed piano and violin serenity.
The fifth track is also the only one that I would say has anything approaching interesting or dynamic lyrics. It weaves a familiar character, Shakespeare’s Juliet, into a tapestry of appropriately heartbreaking emotion. In general The Monikers are good at painting a scene in vivid detail with their lyrics but usually they have very little to say. It’s as though the singer is recounting a series of events that happened to him, but that he hasn’t thought deeply about. These songs clearly have an emotional connection for him, but that connection isn’t adequately conveyed so that others can feel it with the one exception of the final track. It doesn’t help that the lead singer often sounds as though he’s doing an imitation of someone else (Ben Folds, Ezra Koenig, etc.).
Overall this is a fairly lackluster album without a strong sense of cohesion or flow. With that said The Monikers showed some promise and when inspired to create something uniquely their own, can do just that.
You can find The Monikers’ full album here.
Lower Lands’ 4-track release, This Was Not Our Greatest Endeavour, opens with the band talking amongst themselves, setting the scene for a potentially self-aware and confessional experience. However when the opening guitar riff cuts through the seemingly naked nature of this beginning, it’s pretty clear what Lower Lands is all about. This is straight punk rock, with a smattering of pop and hardcore for good measure. Their first track, “To The Highest Bidder”, reminds me at times of “London Calling” by the Clash, with its steady guitar hammering home every quarter note, as a second guitar line squeals over top with anxious intensity. This gives way to a chorus reminiscent of Yellowcard or Coheed and Cambria, followed by more verse/chorus, and a solo that any fan of late 80′s Hardcore will enjoy. The other three tracks play out about the way you would expect. This is not a release that is going to change the world of music, but Lower Lands knows what they are trying to do, and they do it quite well.
I can’t say I’m necessarily a fan of this style of music, however their sound is tight and full, with the necessary hooks to get people tapping along. Crackling guitar tones grate over drums that thud in straight time, with a second guitar hitting rhythmic repetitions, as the singer in anguished fervor sing-yells. These are definitely musicians with a fair amount of talent, however I don’t hear anything that I would deem overly original. If someone had told me these were songs from some of the artists I had listed before, I probably would have believed them, which isn’t necessarily a terrible thing. This band fits in nicely to an established genre with a solid fan base, and since the production on these tracks was excellent, there’s no reason they shouldn’t have a loyal following.
I did appreciate that Lower Lands leans more toward a Hardcore Punk mentality than toward a more pop approach. You might have noticed that I haven’t written about the lyrics yet, and that because I found them largely forgettable. Often I was unable to understand what they were singing, which is a stylistic choice of course, but it does strip out a lot of potential value. Other times the lyrics were fairly straightforward, expressing familiar sentiments with basic language.
Overall, if your a fan of this style of music Lower Lands from Lincoln, UK will not disappoint. There were moments that I thoroughly enjoyed, and their sound does get stuck in your head, but I personally wish they would have applied their clear musical gift and hard work on a project with slightly loftier goals.
You can find Lower Lands full album here: http://lowerlands.bandcamp.com/
There was a time in the early 2000′s when electronic pop had a huge revivial. After more than a decade of being somewhat marginalized artists like The Postal Service and Ladytron started to have huge commercial success. With cheery jingles, dance inducing drum tracks, and melancholy vocals, this musical moment seemed coolly smooth, while still retaining a self-aware mindfulness. Michigan Rex fits very nicely into this context.
The first track off Cities To Burn begins with a beautiful sound-scape of mellow and expansive synth parts that build nicely into a very fitting, albeit predictable, beat. When the vocals start there is a sense of subtle defiance in the face of steady melancholy. As the track progresses the synth parts are woven in and out with rather deft hands. Although the track doesn’t really build much further than its start there is a strong and pleasant pervasive sense of style.
The second track starts off sounding very much like The Postal Service with a fairly cheery electric piano jingle which transitions into more of a Rilo Kiley sound with alt-pop guitar strums and melodic vocal harmonies. It’s not the most inspiring song, but there’s nothing particularly wrong with it either.
The next two tracks feature the male singer more prominently, where he sounds a little like Chris Carrabba, and although this does fit stylistically with the musical genre, it comes off as forced and weakens the emotional impact of these two tracks. While we’re considering vocals I would like to point out that although I mostly enjoyed the singing of the female lead, I never felt I was hearing her voice unaffected which could have added a more personal connection to the music.
The reprise of ‘Cities’ would be nothing more than a fine example of electronic pop, if it wasn’t for the unexpected intro which was an attack of jagged guitar samples that pulsed in and out gorgeously.
The last two tracks are very well done covers of ‘All My Days’ by Alexi Murdoch and ‘Neighbor’ by Band of Horses. In neither case does it feel like Michigan Rex makes the song their own, but they do infuse their style into the tracks seamlessly, and I can’t help but think that they are clearly very fine musicians, with an understanding of how to make multi-layered synth music sound simple and catchy.
Cities to Burn didn’t wow me lyrically, and I suppose here is an example of the issues I had with the album. Although it is very polished and well constructed, it never reaches for anything that I can identify as particularly personal or real. This is true for most electronic pop, so I suppose that’s to be expected. If you’re a fan of electronic pop, then Michigan Rex will not disappoint you.
You can find Michigan Rex’s Cities to Burn EP here: http://michiganrex.bandcamp.com/album/cities-to-burn-ep
I’m hoping to continue a recurring review article, as I try to listen to new and original artists, mainly in Wisconsin, but elsewhere if something I hear strikes me a certain way.
I’ve known of Paul Otteson for almost a decade now, first becoming aware of him through his work in the band Lukas Larabee and the Lifeparterners. They were a fun, uplifting rock group that played songs like “Running Song” about how they liked to run, and “My Brother The Superhero” about someone who plays an inordinate amount of video games. As a college hipster obsessed with finding new indie music I enjoyed sharing Larabee tracks with everyone I could, and even covered a few of their songs with Strutt.
Paul is no longer a part of Lukas Larabee and the Lifeparterners, and instead has been playing and writing by himself, mostly utilizing his guitar and voice in streamlined folk songs that instantly feel familiar and yet complicated. For February Fables, however, Paul decided to record with a full band, and has attempted to achieve a much higher quality of recording than his earlier solo work. Joined by guitarist Jeremiah Nelson, bassist Tom McCarty, violinist Shawn Drake and drummer Luke Bassuener, the resulting album is richly filled with texture and graceful subtlety.
Each track on the album is a full, beautifully crafted, and completely contained piece. There are no characters, emotions, or themes that carry between each track, except that each is based on an Aesop fable. This helps to create an album that feels timeless, as if the spaces between each track is filled with the details of how the songs, and the lives depicted in them, can be pieced together. At times, especially early in the album, Otteson’s fables seem playful and fun, which makes perfect sense. After all, Paul’s day job is as the general music teacher at Fox Prairie Elementary School in Stoughton, WI.
However at other times these fables take on a more somber tone, such as ‘The Goat and the Goatherd,’ shedding light on a scene of tragedy and mourning. One of Paul’s strengths is his voice, which slides effortlessly through earnest yet soothing baritone and playful falsetto. During the tracks that are more solemn in nature his baritone really shines, reaching depths of emotion that feel especially genuine, as with ‘The Rose and the Amaranth.’
Otteson crafted these tracks over two winters as part of the February Album Writing Month, which Brian Strutt and I have participated in as well. In fact, it was Paul who initially got us interested in FAWM, and without him our project Let The Open Rush You Through would probably not have ever existed. In February 2009, Paul and his wife Abby met with Strutt and I to share our FAWM music. We played The Open for them, and Paul shared with us some of the songs that would become February Fables. At the time I really enjoyed his interpretations on these timeless Aesop fables, and the arrangements on February Fables enrich his storytelling all the more.
In the end, this is not an album that is going to reinvent music. It doesn’t necessarily break any new ground, and yet it is so lovingly crafted, and filled with moments of genuine beauty, that it’s hard not to enjoy it. If you like folk music of any kind, or are just a fan of indie music, this is definitely an album to check out.
Album Rating: 80/100