The Joy Formidable’s second full-length record, “Wolf’s Law,” is an exaggerated interpretation of alternative rock, each track more bombastic and grandiose than the last. Though the band shows great technical skill in the layering and lyrical qualities of the songs, ideas are heaped on top of one another without being fully fleshed out, giving the album a disjointed, confused vibe.
The first track, “This Ladder is Ours,” opens with a very cinematic, dramatic instrumental lead-in that builds up to a more classic rock climax. The rest of the song is a battle between the instruments and Ritzy Bryan’s vocals to see which can be the loudest for no apparent reason. That is my biggest issue with this album—the vocals and instrumentation never seem to be in sync, instead working against each other in a frenetic mess.
On “Tendons,” the juxtaposition of the heavy, prog-rock melody and Bryan’s ethereal vocals only serve to make the guitars sound even more severe and Bryan even more delicate, instead of the two fusing together into complimentary variances in one body. “The Hurdle” was the bright spot of the album for me, its frenzied, guitar-driven chorus grounded in lighter, more minimalist breaks. Though this track contains much of the same methodology as the rest of the album, it gives the audience something familiar and easy to hold on to as well.
“Bats” uses distortion effects to create a hard rock sound with a futuristic edge, though the execution leaves a bit to be desired. The song wants to be gritty and grungy, but the production is almost too perfect. Bryan’s vocals are too controlled, the instrumentation too purposely chaotic. When the songs don’t make sense standing alone, it’s even harder for them to build each other up into a cohesive story. “Wolf’s Law” isn’t The Joy Formidable’s most able effort, a victim of their unedited, unrestrained take on alternative, progressive rock.
On their new album, “The Archer Trilogy Pt. 3,” The Deer Tracks manage to run the gamut of indie pop variations, from futuristic, avant-garde tracks to more straightforwardly poppy songs. While this variety could become overly chaotic and disconnected, the album as a whole finds its foundation in the band’s ability to expertly, effortlessly layer sounds. The record is a well-executed exhibition of The Deer Tracks’ enviable talent for building upbeat, elaborate tracks that manage to not sound overworked or stiff.
On “Divine Light,” sci-fi and surreal digital effects contrast the soft and feminine vocals to create an overall sound that’s both ambient and engaging. “Explodion” plays with these layers in a different way, stripping them down to minimal, fragile verses that lead into a grand, bombastic, well, explosion. While the two styles are intrinsically oppositional, The Deer Tracks manage to merge them into one track, one single experience that highlights them both.
While The Deer Tracks successfully navigate the indie pop landscape over the majority of the album, they do, albeit rarely, stray off course. The opening song, “III,” sets the audience for an entirely different listening experience. The absence of instruments or effects on the track strays from the inherent signature of the rest of the album, calling to mind a high school a capella group instead of a talented, smart indie pop duo that specializes in an ordered chaos aesthetic. While it may only be one misstep on a record that boasts innumerable other bright spots, because it is the first track, the first impression that a listener will get of The Deer Tracks and what they’re trying to say, it creates a disjointed identity for the album.
When it comes to Christmas albums, I usually stick with the classics—The Beach Boys, Mariah Carey, Celtic Woman. This year, I’ve got a new classic that I can add into my rotation. The Rosebuds’ “Christmas Tree Island” is an awesome take on holiday music. The indie pop duo’s 13 original Christmas songs are festive without being too kitschy, upbeat and fun without feeling frenzied.
The tracks that band members Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp put together have a nostalgic feel to them, fusing their own modern, alternative style with classic holiday song conventions and sounds. The first track, “I Hear (Click Click Click)”, opens with jingling sleigh bells, instantly putting the listener in a particular headspace, full of cozy fireplaces, snow on the ground and a blinding Christmas tree. As the melody introduces an acoustic guitar and Howard’s folky vocals, the song moves in a decidedly more modern direction that manages to retain the spirit, the essence of classic holiday tunes.
“When It’s Cold” is my favorite track on the album, twangy guitar and tinkling bells complementing an absurdly catchy chorus to create an utterly cheerful, entertaining carol. The jazzier tune “Lonely Light” has a deeper, more soulful spirit, with passionate vocals, a slower melody and beautiful saxophone work. The more bubbly, buoyant songs, like “Journey to Christmas Island,” wouldn’t be out of place at a summer barbecue or beach bonfire, but transcend seasonal limits and bring a certain lightness to the holiday season.
“Christmas Tree Island” really has it all. The Rosebuds flawlessly intertwine two totally different aesthetics, modern indie pop and traditional, nostalgic holiday anthems, to create an album that seems both familiar and fresh. It’s a record that I know is going to be on repeat in my house all winter long and, if my past holiday music practices are any indication, probably way into spring as well.
For a trio of guys based in Indiana, Sleeping Bag channel California surprisingly well on their surf rock album, “Women of Your Life.” The record has a dreamy, carefree vibe, focusing on the instrumental and vocal abilities and range of the band.
Though surf music finds its roots in the 1960s, Sleeping Bag brings the genre into the 21st century by creating a full, layered sound. Because each member has had his time as a front man, the harmonies are knock-your-socks-off good. The harmonies on “Allison Cole” take the ska-esque track from simple to infectious, the two-word chorus (guess which two words…) repeating in the listener’s head like a battle cry.
The first and title track, “Women of Your Life,” is an unfortunately disappointing opening to the record. The song lacks the some of the hallmarks of a successful surf rock track—undeniable catchiness, striking harmonies—and instead replaces them with monotonously low vocals and repetitive power chords. The unchanging verses blend into one another, while the chorus gets a relative lift from mildly interesting guitar work. While not offensively boring or poorly produced, the track takes the elements that work so well together elsewhere on the album and creates mediocrity that is unfortunately replicated on other songs on the record. “Soda You” and “Still Life” also both take Sleeping Bag’s dreamy pop to the extreme, turning it into sleepy pop.
On certain tracks, Sleeping Bag takes deliberate steps to evade this monotony. At the beginning of “Saturday Night” they use over-exaggerated strumming and whistling to create different levels of sound and timbre. “Soccer Ball’ features vibrato guitar techniques, creating a more bluesy sound, and “Walk Home” ends the album on a high note, the track creating different emotions within itself, the guitar moving between the background and the spotlight to build a driving, animated sound. It’s very cleverly and expertly done, a skill that would have been welcome throughout the rest of the record.
Swedish musician Sarah Assbring is back for her fifth studio album as her lo-fi pop alter ego, El Perro Del Mar. The album, “Pale Fire,” ventures headfirst into her signature indie pop style, though its missteps are made even more obvious by the record’s own highs.
My favorite track on the album, “Hold Off The Dawn,” plays with Assbring’s airy, whimsical voice, weaving it seamlessly in and out of a number of electronic instruments and effects. The layers of sound are complex and numerous, but they make sense with each other and come together surprisingly easily to create an indie-pop sound that’s both catchy and refreshing.
With such a complex, layered aesthetic, it’s inevitable that the components won’t always come together as seamlessly as others. “I Carry the Fire” falls victim to this pitfall, Assbring’s soft, ethereal vocals not quite connecting and harmonizing with jerky, jarring melody. The elements are too discordant to create one coherent song, a misfire that unfortunately permeates a number of the other songs on the album.
“Walk On By” is fairly innocuous, with a catchy ska-pop vibe, Assbring’s signature vocals and relatively straightforward background instrumentation. Though I didn’t find “To the Beat of a Dying World” aurally pleasing (too repetitive, both lyrically and rhythmically, for me), I do commend it for highlighting and respecting Assbring’s voice. On the opening and title track “Pale Fire,” her singing gets lost in and outshone by the intricacies of the elaborate background instruments. “Love Confusion” treats her vocals like any other instrument on the song, using it as a vehicle to deliver overly electronic effects to the listener instead of letting them revel in its natural wonder. Though El Perro Del Mar delivers an interesting, complex sound on her album “Pale Fire,” the overall result suffers from an over abundance of instrumental effects and missed opportunities to utilize Assbring’s natural talents.
On their self-titled first record, Field Report exhibits a real, natural, raw sound that makes it seems like they’re playing the album just for you, live in your friend’s garage or around a fire pit. Songs like “Chico the American” and “Captain Video” are slow and somber on the surface, but hold a deeper, rougher sound that prevent the album from becoming too soft or monotonous.
The first track, “Fergus Falls,” progresses gracefully from an instrumental, folky tune to a full, complex number that surrounds and engulfs the listener. Opening on just the notes of a twangy acoustic guitar, the piece fluidly adds a band of harmonious voices and various other instruments, guitars and a violin especially, that turn just a song into a memorable, powerful moment.
They have a minimalist style that should in no way be mistaken for simple. The lack of overly elaborate and showy effects and production give the listener a chance to slow down, a chance to focus on the raspy soulfulness of the vocals and the distinctiveness of the guitar plucking and the enchantingly crafted lyrics (“They got you wrapped up in guilt like an aftermarket cancer quilt” from “Circle Drive” comes to mind).
I have so many good things to say about this album and this band. Though it’s only their first record, Field Report’s self-titled debut shows their musicality and talents off in the best way possible, playing directly to and highlighting their strengths. They shine in their slow songs, bringing soul and intensity to the tracks, which is great because the entire album seems to be made up of slow songs. The amount of musical prowess Field Report’s slower tracks displayed made me yearn to hear them try their hand at an upbeat melody, dance track or fast-paced ditty. In the meantime, I have no problem putting their current album on repeat.
Ortega’s music has a real, rustic feel to it. By balancing her full, rich voice with the twanginess of the guitars, her music sounds organic and natural, each part playing off of and enhancing the other. I would call her newest album “Cigarettes & Truckstops” classically country except for two things: Ortega’s soulful yet naturally twangy voice, and the fact that she’s originally from Canada.
Ortega shows a vast knowledge of and versatility between the various subgenres and nuances of country and folk music. The fast-paced “The Day You Die” makes you (or me, at least) want to get up and two-step, while “Demons Don’t Get Me Down” wouldn’t sound out of place in a 1920s saloon. By maintaining the same basic elements, Ortega is able to traverse a range of styles with both deftness and cohesion.
I preferred Ortega’s slower songs because I think they showcased her vocals more, letting her slightly nasally, deeply soulful voice take center stage. On “Lead Me On,” she sings with a hopeful melancholy that transforms into a bombastic confidence, all the while supported by an orchestra of guitars that’s both full of timbre and delicately buoyant. The closing track, “Every Mile of the Ride” is more straightforward indie, with both Ortega’s vocals and the melody becoming more ethereal and gentle, like you’re floating on the song like a river.
Ortega’s delightfully cheeky, clearly having fun with her talent and attitude. On the rockabilly anthem “Don’t Wanna Hear It,” she croons to “Go ahead and sing your sad little song. Before you finish the first verse, baby, I will be long gone.” Luckily for Ortega, she can successfully back up her audacity with an album full of warm, emotional tracks. “Cigarettes & Truckstops” is a solid album, harking back to more traditional styles of country and blues that Ortega manages to breathe, or rather sing, life into.
I’ll admit it: I’m a John Darnielle fan girl. I wish that he had been my music teacher in middle school or my soccer coach when I was little or recorded audiobooks that I could listen to at work. I enjoy the music he makes and the sound his voice produces, so it may come as no surprise that I really, really liked The Mountain Goats’ newest album, “Transcendental Youth.”
The tracks on The Mountain Goats’ fourteenth studio album regularly refer to and call out to a reclusive, alienated, eccentric group of Washington state inhabitants. From its very first line, “Do everything stupid thing that makes you feel alive,” the record speaks to these people, fictional and otherwise, in an uplifting, powerful way that’s mirrored how buoyant and full of life the actual music is.
Though technically a trio, The Mountain Goats enlisted a myriad of supplementary instruments, from saxophones to trumpets to percussion sections, to round out the album’s character and create new sounds. “Cry for Judas,” a song taking responsibility for mistakes and betrayals, gets a surprising ska spin from a drum-heavy, catchy chorus and a horn section woven throughout. “In Memory of Satan,” despite what the title may suggest, backs Darnielle’s relatively softer vocals with a number of quintessentially orchestral instruments, including a flute, clarinet and piano, to create a more elegant, classical vibe.
Keyboard instruments play a starring role throughout the album, from the upbeat piano rock track “The Diaz Brothers” to the emotional, indie “Lakeside View Apartment Suite.” On the latter piece, more somber, unembellished verses contrast with a chorus that owes its richness, buoyancy, liveliness to a strong piano melody.
This liveliness loses its way towards the middle of the album, the record’s weaker tracks taking cover within bookends of more engaging pieces. “Until I Am Whole” is almost entirely acoustic, a tried and true trope of The Mountain Goats, but it falls short of the charisma and appeal of the similarly-styled opening track, “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1.” The Mountain Goats go grunge on “Night Light,” becoming a bit overzealous with their use of distortion effects and electronic percussion. “Transcendental Youth,” like its adolescent subjects, makes a pilgrimage through a number of peaks and valleys that culminates in all that anyone can ask for: ending up with a greater number of highs than lows.
CMJ is not a festival to be recovered from lightly. So even though I’m a little late, here are the (partial) shows I saw on Friday and Saturday!
On Friday, I headed to Bushwick for the Topshelf Records Showcase at apartment-turned-concert venue Suburbia. Because of my day job, I showed up unfortunately too late to catch Doors, Have Mercy and Prawn but just in time for Diamond Youth to take the stage. The band absolutely rocked their set, their energy pulsing through and engulfing the crowd. The alternative rock sound was a bit more punk in person, noisier and less polished in the best way. They were really having fun performing and feeding off the crowd, creating an engaging mess of music.
Next up was Slingshot Dakota. The duo, backed by just a keyboard and drums, brought just as much energy in their minimalist take on ska. The absence of any stringed instruments is unique and highly welcome; it sets the music slightly off kilter, wandering between indie, folk and pop without having to be branded by an overly distinct guitar or bass. If pressed, I would compare vocalist Carly Comando’s voice to The Hush Sound, though it would be unfair to both. Comando brings depth and soul to the otherwise modern instruments and composition.
Spoiler Alert: The next band, The World is a Beautiful Place & I am No Longer Afraid to Die, played for 15 minutes before I even realized there was a band on stage. Suburbia is an awesome venue, but it is also scorchingly hot. I’ve been on the Backdraft ride at Universal Studios, and I honestly say that Suburbia is honestly the hottest I’ve ever been. Needless to say, I left during this set. But don’t worry! The World is a Beautiful Place…makes another appearance!
Unsatisfied with my truncated outing on Friday, I opted for another abbreviated show on Saturday afternoon. I again hit up Brooklyn for the Run For Cover Records showcase in Greenpoint. I apparently refuse to see any show in its entirety, so I missed performances by Turnover, Pity Sex, Young Statues and Ghost Thrower, which is very sad.
I came one song into Koji’s set and, in the interest of full disclosure, the review of his set is going to be absolutely and totally biased because he’s a friend of mine. But, he is not related to me, so I can still rag on him a little. A totally departure from every other band I’d seen at CMJ, Koji took the stage accompanied only by an electro-acoustic guitar. He showed off his beautifully strong voice and punk roots with an emotional, raw set. He awed his audience with his authenticity and intimate asides between songs, had them singing as loud as himself with old favorites and introduced a couple new songs from his upcoming full-length that I’m totally stoked for, friend or not.
All good writing comes full circle, and so do all good festivals! This showcase had a secret guest that, awesomely enough for me, happened to be The World is a Beautiful Place & I am No Longer Afraid to Die. What I hadn’t been able to notice, let alone comprehend, at the previous night’s show is that the band is actually a septet: drums, keyboard, bass, three guitars and a cello. Their DIY indie aesthetic, with more knobs, mixers and pedals on stage than a recording studio, hit tons of magic moments, though inevitably, with that many people and instruments on stage at once, sometimes it just sounded like noise. There were also odd spoken word segments opening and closing the show that didn’t fit for me, but The World is a Beautiful Place… overall showed stunning, awesome musicality balancing their horde of instruments and voices in a way that created a powerful, rich sound.
Tigers Jaw headlined the show for good reason. They step on stage looking like any indie band, any five people, but they bring together a slightly offbeat arsenal of stylistic choices in a totally brilliant way. The keyboard tuned like a funeral organ, the syncopation between the melody and lyrical stresses and combination of high- and low-octave voices create a nostalgic, ‘90s grunge indie atmosphere that still manages to feel new and enthralling.
I’m almost glad I didn’t manage to see an entire show over these two days because I already left feeling completely blown away and musically inadequate. And really, isn’t that what it’s all about?
Hype Machine held the first night of their CMJ “Handpicked Showcase” last night at Brooklyn Bowl. The six bands in the lineup were: JJAMZ, Indians, The Neighbourhood, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, The Virgins and SUA.
JJAMZ is a veritable indiepop supergroup, whose members include guitarist James Valentine (Maroon 5), drummer Jason Boesel (Rilo Kiley/Bright Eyes), guitarist Alex Greenwald (Phantom Planet), bassist Michael Runion, and lead singer Z Berg (The Like). As the show’s openers, JJAMZ brought a ton of energy to the stage. Berg’s vocals seemed a bit raspier, more worn than on their album and after hearing her try to belt their ballad “Poolside,” I believe she blew out her voice instead of being an intentional effect. Every member of JJAMZ is seriously talented, with both Greenwald and Runion taking over lead vocals for separate songs, like the new “Waste of Time,” a more alternative, Greenwald-led track that was my highlight. Overall, the music was fun and catchy, the insanely danceable “Suicide Pact” closing the set and leaving me humming an oddly morbid chorus to myself.
Indians (aka Soren Juul) took the stage next, standing simply behind a setup of mixers and a keyboard. Juul was a bit overzealous with the electronic effects, creating so much sound with so many parts that it sounded like we were underwater, drowning under the weight of the sheer number of elements he wanted to include. His voice, through all the reverb and distortion, was actually quite nice and strong. In the middle of his set, Juul moved to the side of the stage and picked up a guitar and played a couple of songs acoustically. This was my favorite part, when the background instrumentation was less convoluted and Juul’s vocals were the focal point. I did enjoy Indians’ closing song, mostly for the strong bassline that had been missing from the opening electronic section.
If you’ve listened to The Neighbourhood but have never seen what they look like, you’re in for a surprise. With a lead singer dressed like Joe Strummer and a guitarist rocking a scarf, it’s no wonder that the band’s sound is a fusion of a number of completely opposing styles. While the beat was hip hop, the guitars and bass were more indie, dance rock and the vocals ranged from rap to blues to alternative. The Neighbourhood had the audience hooked from the moment they stepped on stage, leading them on an endearing, expletive-heavy sing-a-long and showing off their insane musicality while having a bit of fun before surging into their closing song, the single, “Sweater Weather,” a classic, nostalgic surf rock anthem.
The secret guest of the night was Unknown Mortal Orchestra, but because CMJ shows usually go late they played in the middle of the showcase, which was great for me but less so for the bands following. They absolutely brought the house down. The band played their set pretty much straight through, pausing once or twice to thank the audience, but other than that the music didn’t stop. “Ffunny Ffriends” and “Bicycle” were electric, pulsing energy through the crowd. Parts of their set felt like sitting in on a lo-fi jam band, singing and dancing along to favorites like “How Can You Luv Me” and then standing in awe as the trio continued to riff and improv on their instruments. Unknown Mortal Orchestra played like a headliner, going totally nuts and all out for every single song.
I enjoy The Virgins quite a bit, so even as a fan I can say that having them play after Unknown Mortal Orchestra was a stretch. Their indie surf rock seemed like a lullaby after Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s musical punch in the face. That said, the set, considered as a separate entity, was pretty successful. “Venus in Chains” was a hit, putting out a more Tom Petty, Americana energy. Throughout the set, awesome guitar solos were worked into various songs, though some of the slower songs were a bit flat. They sometimes felt like they wanted to be faster and gave off a high school prom vibe.
Another band played after The Virgins, but the energy in the space was waning, so I called it a night. Gotta rest up for the coming shows!