Since 2008, we’ve used our eMusic Selects program to spotlight our favorite unsigned bands, releasing their albums exclusively to eMusic members and giving you a first look at bands whose music and vision inspires us. We’re proud to say that bands like Best Coast, High Places, Yellow Ostrich, Julianna Barwick and others are all graduates of our Selects program.
We feel just as excited about the latest members of our Selects family, EULA. This band doesn’t merely command your attention — they grab you by the throat, throw you across the room and leave you no option but to pay them heed. They are a tornado dressed up as a rock band, the fierce, lunging vocals of frontwoman Alyse Lamb divebombing again and again between thunderclaps of guitar. The songs are dirty and driving; the title track pitches fits like an ornery toddler, Lamb sneering and scowling over tarry bass guitar. You can hear hundreds of albums exploding at once — not just avowed influence PJ Harvey, but also X-Ray Spex and the Pop Group and Bikini Kill. Get familiar with them in this video, then download their debut, Maurice Narcisse — the latest addition to the eMusic Selects roster.
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In their eMusic Selects video, EULA lead singer and guitarist Alyse Lamb recalls her "What the fuck is THIS!?" reaction, as a young girl, watching PJ Harvey going inspiringly berserk on MTV: Who was this woman "raving at the screen" with her "crazy, crazy dissonant music," Lamb wondered? The shock, it turns out was a salutary one: Polly Jean, in her gloriously unhinged mid-'90s "50 Ft. Queenie" phase, is as good a place to start with the life-affirming racket of EULA, our latest eMusic Selects act, as any. With a feral whoop pitched somewhere between Harvey, Poly Styrene, and a baby Valkyrie with a blood-stained grin, Lamb plays the demonic cheerleader for Maurice Narcisse, one of the most infectious post-punk parties we've been invited to in awhile.
"Dirty Hands," the opening track, tells you almost everything you need to know in one shot. The song is all about the various metaphorical joys of being dirty, and the bass, which squirts out of the song sounding greased with something you wouldn't touch without gloves on, communicates that same joy. "I have dirty hands, dirty teeth, you don't care!" Lamb exults, and you can hear the internalized Polly Jean, both in the body shame/body pride strut of the sentiment and in the batshit warcry ululations she lets fly in between verses.
The band is a small unit – just Lamb on vocals and chicken-scratchy wire-barbed guitar, Jeff Maleri on bass, and Nate Rose on drums, but they kick up a massive racket, one that feels like chewing gum rubbed in glass. Loose and rubbery in the bass, jerky and over caffeinated in the drums, topped with Lamb's squealing sour fight-song chants, EULA's groove mingles low-rent sleaze with righteous punk rally cries. There is a lot of implied fucking on Maurice Narcisse – "You had me crawling on the ceiling/you had me pinned up on the wall/oh lord, oh lord" Lamb chants on "Oh Lord!" over a tiny blip of drum machine that resembles a pair of rolling hips transmuted into an animated .gif.
They can downshift well, too, into far sinister territory: "Bone Density" is a bump and grind beset with fever chills, body joy slipping into body horror. The percussion sounds on the song come from sources as far-flung as a smashed bag of potato chips and a box of tacks. And then there's the breath-catching single-take acoustic number "Hollow Cave," Lamb's voice shrinking to asphyxiated church-mouse size over tentative strums. "Knowing it's the final time I really wake up by your side," she coos, her voice breaking. It's a startling moment of vulnerability that hints at the range of things EULA can do. For now, they've recorded this knockout, joyful high-kick of an album. We couldn't be prouder of it.
Koory, Looloosh and Obaash met and formed the way of young rock bands since time immemorial: Hanging out at a local park as teenagers, among skaters and punk rockers, they bonded over their mutual tastes and began playing together. It's a pretty standard, unremarkable story — except it took place in Iran, where, as Koory puts it, "you can find instruments, but the problem is that you're probably going to get the shittiest ones, at triple the price," and where the legality of pop music is, he says, similar to that of marijuana: You can buy the supplies, but don't get caught fooling with the substance. In Brooklyn, where Yellow Dogs currently reside, forming a post-punk band with your friends is about as remarkable an activity as ordering Thai food. In Tehran, it was like more like a covert operation. And, lo and behold, the music they produced, the four-song EP Upper Class Complexity, crackles with more life, wit, tension and imagination than most of their peers. Maybe there's something to be said for having to work for it.
The sound of Upper Class Complexity feels a little out-of-step with the current Brooklyn-scene moment, but in the best possible way: While more bands are chasing hazy good vibes and New Zealand-inspired indie jangle (Real Estate's self-titled appears to be slowly morphing into some kids' Is This It?), Yellow Dogs' music harks back to a moment when every band had a busily riding hi-hat, rhythmic stabs of guitar, and a head full of frayed nerves: the brittle post-punk moment of circa-2003. Yellow Dogs songs are fiendish, caffeinated little puzzles of warily circling guitar and keyboards, each element feeling close and cramped, like riders stuck in a stalled elevator.
With their just-so vintage keyboard sounds, the echo-laden recording atmosphere, and the herky-jerk mid-song breakdowns, these songs seem to spring from years' worth of close study of post-punk deep catalog. Imagine our surprise, then, when the members confessed to not hearing most of these touchstones until after they had found their sound: apart from Joy Division and the Clash, they learned at the feet of those who worshiped the sound with the same reverence they did: Rancid, in other words, was a big influence. But we can't detect a single hint of attenuation in the resulting music. "The City," which closes the EP, is a sneering, evil two-chord vamp that just keeps breaking down into smaller and smaller parts, until finally it's nothing more than a spidery guitar line crawling up your backbone. The song could easily go on for nine minutes and never peter out — live, we hear, it sometimes does — but they cut it off, sharp and still sparking, before it hits five minutes: one last expertly deployed cold-water bucket to the face. It only proves that you don't always need first-hand experience with the source to catch the spirit.
In 2008, the L.A. band Army Navy put out a minor classic in the determinedly minor subgenre of power pop. Insofar as it's even acknowledged to exist outside of the world of record store clerks, power pop is mostly music of misplaced nostalgia and helpless obsession, and it succeeds in no small part by how it manages to remind you of every other pop song you've ever loved. Army Navy's self-titled debut — sunny and sad, sweet and bracingly sour, fresh-faced and weary — was a master class in this balancing act, splitting the difference between '70s acts like Big Star and '90s revivalists like the Posies with effortless aplomb.
Sometimes artists seek to recreate in art what they cannot achieve in life, however, and it often seems that the winsome souls who make this music are always pitching, in their personal lives, towards some new heartbreak. So it's not shocking to learn that the inspiration behind Army Navy's emotionally devastated latest record, The Last Place, is a woman. In the wake of the first Army Navy record, frontman Justin Kennedy fell in love with someone famous — who also happened to be married. The whole affair lasted six months, but it left him with enough bewildered anger and humiliation to pen a whole record. The result is a poisoned Valentine dripping with equal parts beauty and scorn; imagine a Vulcan mind-meld between Teenage Fanclub's Bandwagonesque and Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear and you're there.
The shimmering guitars, bright vocal harmonies, and seamless verse-chorus-verse transitions of Army Navy's debut remain undimmed. If anything, they shine brighter; crack open a power-pop geek's heart, it seems, and gorgeous music leaks out. The first words Kennedy sings on The Last Place's title track are "The last place I wanna be is in my head." It's a bummer sentiment, but Kennedy arcs the melody upward like he's straining to place the gold star atop a Christmas tree. "Ode To Janice Melt" (the name is a reference that Kennedy assured us in our interview, "if she saw the title alone, she would know the song is speaking to her") bops along lightly to a plinked piano and xylophone while Kennedy sings plaintively, "Maybe it's your celebrity/That makes you wanna slum it with me."
The woman in question is never named — partly due, one suspects, to justified fears of libel lawsuits, but it also heightens the album's exquisitely private sting. At any rate, the tortured specifics of Kennedy's romantic dilemma dissolve when exposed to such relentless pop sunshine. When he wails "There's a cost to letting our hearts lust" on "I Think It's Gonna Happen Now," he might get personal catharsis; we just get an effortlessly memorable, relentlessly pleasing soundtrack to our summer.
Since 2008, we've used our eMusic Selects program to spotlight our favorite unsigned bands, releasing their albums exclusively to eMusic members and giving you a first look at bands whose music and vision inspires us. We're proud to say that bands like Best Coast, High Places, Yellow Ostrich, Julianna Barwick and others are all graduates of our Selects program.
We feel just as excited about the latest members of our Selects family, EULA. This band doesn't merely command your attention -- they grab you by the throat, throw you across the room and leave you no option but to pay them heed. They are a tornado dressed up as a rock band, the fierce, lunging vocals of frontwoman Alyse Lamb divebombing again and again between thunderclaps of guitar. The songs are dirty and driving; the title track pitches fits like an ornery toddler, Lamb sneering and scowling over tarry bass guitar. You can hear hundreds of albums exploding at once -- not just avowed influence PJ Harvey, but also X-Ray Spex and the Pop Group and Bikini Kill. Get familiar with them in this video, then download their debut, Maurice Narcisse -- the latest addition to the eMusic Selects roster.
The latest EP from Brooklyn band Pink Noise is called Here is Happiness, but don't let that fool you — it only takes 30 seconds of the white light/white heat rush of "Next One is Real" for bassist/vocalist Sharron Sulami to howl "I went down where the souls get hurt!" as a hail-of-bullets rain down behind her. Make no mistake: There's something wicked at work here. Happiness walks a short path from the cradle to the grave, opening with two figures disappearing down a mist-wreathed path at midnight and peaking with Sulami ominously sighing, "Last December when I died, pretty flowers in your eyes/ Ah, the dirt tasted good today," just four songs later.
This is the Pink Noise master plan: Never let 'em see you stab. They pair a romantic's desperate yearning with the shadowy countenance of a boardwalk palm reader, creating the kind of grim foreboding usually found in old silent horror films. Over the course of Happiness's tense half-hour, they ricochet madly between the kind of creamy guitar swirl perfected by the early '90s by Lush to the white-knuckle punk rock frenzy of PJ Harvey at around that same time. The whole EP seems to be taking place under cover of darkness: The winding basssline that opens "The Road" recalls the best moments of The Cure's haunting Faith; the herky-jerk "Dive" — which sonically imagines Björk fronting Wire — is a barrage of single-syllable punches, just strange synths and frantic, cross-hatched guitar in the place where the chorus should be.
Pink Noise manages the tension and suspense with the control of a great director — letting a merely unsettling beginning steadily ramp up to a full-freakout finale. And while the group worked with several outside hands in the recording process — among them, Dave Sitek from TV on the Radio as a producer on half the tracks, and Holly Miranda as a vocalist on "Redwoods" — Here is Happiness feels remarkable through-composed: a single essay on loss and fear anchored in brothers Itamar and Yuval Ziegler's taut-wire guitars and Sulami's nervy, panicked vocals. Think of the album as an omen: the first fevered, panicked, bracing warning before everything goes — spectacularly — to hell.
"I've been wasted here and I sense movements of beauty," sings frontwoman Kim Krans on "Hatred," the opener of Family Band's debut LP Miller Path. It's hard to know exactly what she means, but there's no denying its chilling impact. Family Band's music is like that: dark, eerie and often cryptic, but also beautiful. It's not surprising to learn that guitarist Jonny Ollsin has been playing in metal bands for the better part of two decades; even though there are no thrashing powerchords or throat-shredding screams, metal's intense bleakness lurks in every corner of Miller Path, creating a sound the group has dubbed "heavy mellow."
Family Band's rage is a quiet one, best summed up by another line in "Hatred": "It is hatred that makes the horse run strong." That image of Krans internalizing her pent-up anger and channeling it into determination and power is grim, almost frightening. The songs have themes of death and nightmares, but the darkness is contained — it's tightly coiled in Krans's alto, and it's what fuels the strength in her voice. At times, she channels a Moon Pix-era Cat Power, most apparently on the soulful "Fantasy," one of the record's more stripped-down numbers, which finds Krans singing, "Open up your memory, let those floodgates spill/ Baby, I will get you home."
Family Band is Ollsin's first non-metal outing, and you can still hear echoes of his musical background in the spiraling, minor-key guitar arpeggios that decorate many songs. He originally made an agreement with Krans (who is also his wife) that major chords were out of the question, though he conceded a few times, for the better, not only in the chord structure, but also in the lilting guitars and blues-guitar march in "No Sound." Drummer Adam Cimino's atmospheric, non-intrusive technique reinforces the album's fluid feel: Sometimes all the song needs is a steady tambourine hit ("Hatred") or a cymbal- and rim-click-driven waltz ("Diamonds"). (Since this recording, Cimino has been replaced by former Yeasayer drummer Luke Fasano.) But even when the drums are more prominent, intertwining with Ollsin's guitar and Scott Hirsch's bass, they're still very much in tune with the rest of the album's calm-yet-foreboding soundscapes. For every spiraling, muted guitar run, spooky whistling effect, and dissonant hook, Miller Path has just as many moments of gorgeous resolution.
"Put down the phone, it hasn't worked for years," Tim Showalter, the one-man band behind Strand of Oaks, sings on "Bonfire." It's a shaded but vivid lyric, quietly chilling and warm at the same time, insinuating and subtle, illuminating two people trapped together forever, trying to figure out how to coexist. "Let's stay here, and be calm," his gentle tenor coos before the song unwraps a molasses-like synth line. This is what the Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, native does on the haunting, elusive Pope Killdragon: He draws portraits of people on the brink of love or fear or both. His voice is a desiccated husk of despair, sometimes accompanying plaintive acoustic compositions, like the folkloric "Alex Kona," or soaring above a "Cowgirl in the Sand"-style blizzard of fuzz and distortion, as on "Giant's Despair." This is a deeply delicate album.
Showalter was a confessionalist on his last album, the darkly funny Leave Ruin, detailing the dissolution of a relationship and the literal burning down of his home. Those times are gone. He's older now, married. And so he tells stories, mostly, refracting his experience onto people he knows and some he's invented. And his way with a story is terribly engrossing, offering small details, fractions of conversation, tiny morsels that elide the obvious. Showalter has been compared to Will Oldham, but he's probably closer to Raymond Carver — wounded and empathetic, he understands his characters, though he rarely cuts them too much slack. One spin of "Daniel's Blues" reveals as much.
"One day, I hope to have half as much of my grandpa's integrity," Showalter sings on the album's centerpiece, the nearly seven-minute-long elegy "Sterling." It's an astounding song, big and bold, but tenderhearted, that wanders off into stormy territory slowly but assuredly. That Showalter can weave through this album, changing speeds and sonic construction — though rarely tone, which is always pained but clear-eyed — with such grace is a marvel. Pope Killdragon exists in the tradition of the lonesome, one-man album, but by turns often transcends it, too.
Man/Miracle say The Shape of Things, their first album, is "about living in a space that's both crumbling and full of life," which kind of makes the whole thing sound like an indie-rock sociology project. But when you realize "this space" is actually their dilapidated house in Oakland, where they rehearse and have basement shows, you get to the crux of it — this is an exceedingly exuberant, sweaty rock record.
For as good a Man/Miracle m.o. as you're gonna get, listen to "Multitudes" — it's a manic, twitching romp that trips all over itself with positively gleeful recklessness. Such is the sound of Shape: a bluster of furiously scratched-out dual guitar lines, galloping drum acrobatics and David Byrne-ian yelps. The album is full of brimming-over moments — even in the quiet, more deliberate corners of Shape, you can feel the band itching with anticipation. When the whole thing explodes again, a split second before the metronome probably clicked, it's an incredible rush.
"Pushing and Shoving," which we previously tapped for the eMusic Selected + Collected compilation, is an immediate highlight, with its breezy shuffle-strut and perfectly lilting vocal melody. "Hot Sprawl," though, is probably the biggest winner. It has an irresistible, head-bobbing stop/start rhythm and a layered vocal approach that's bolder and more resonant than any other song on the record. By the time we hit album-closer "Ghost Tongue," the boys sound wiped. The song's first half is downright delicate compared to Shape's otherwise frantic pace but, true to form, the final minute is a full-on pedal yell freakout — the last gasp from an excitable, exciting young band with everything to prove.
Alynda Lee embodies the folk ideal. At a time when much "folk music" has become the province of self-serious beardy auteurs content to ply their heartsick wares on the coffeehouse circuit, Alynda has a worried mind and a restless heart. She ran away from her Bronx home at age 17 and, like Woody Guthrie and Ramblin' Jack Elliott before her, started riding freight trains, making acquaintances as she roamed from town to town and sleeping out at night underneath the big open sky. She eventually ended up in New Orleans, where she made money by playing washboard for a street band called the Dead Man's Street orchestra. Over time, washboard became banjo and Lee went from side player to central figure, forming Hurray for the Riff Raff to give voice to the song in her heart.
Young Blood Blues is the second Hurray for the Riff Raff record, and it's their first masterpiece. Stark, stirring and evocative, it capably summons both early Cat Power and Margaret Johnson while being clearly beholden to neither. Make no mistake: this is Alynda's world, and she gave life to the characters that inhabit it. Some of them are just shadows: "I saw your ghost in the grocery," is how the record opens, and even the characters on Young Blood who still have a beating heart seem only half-alive. In the lovely, lilting "Slow Walk" — which, if you weren't listening closely, you'd mistake for a love song — Lee sings, "You stick the needle in your arm and your baby starts crying," before warning, "it's a slow walk from the bottom to the top." Happiness is a boon to some, but in Lee's world "Too much of a good thing will make you numb" — a warning she delivers atop a banjo that spirals like a baby's musical mobile.
Coming from anyone else's lips this would all be pretty dire, but Lee's warm voice places her as the latest in a long line of blues singers who can express heartache without sounding overly-morose. She acknowledges that lineage in the haunting title track, describing the ache of her years as the "young blood blues" and announcing that her "best friend in the whole world/ is a man who's dead and gone."
Sparse is the watchword: most of the songs consist of little beyond Alynda's banjo and her warm, ragged voice. But that's somehow enough: there's a delicate beauty that makes them irresistible — they glow like gas lanterns in an old barn, steady and serene. In Lee's hands, even the saddest thoughts feel sweet and vital and — above all else — true.
On her Make You Mine EP, Best Coast's Bethany Cosentino seems like she's trying to make pop music history over in her own image. There's the shoo-wop girl group song ("Make You Mine," with its thumping floor tom and soaring background melodies), its "early days of indie" melody-driven heartwarmer ("Over the Ocean"), its quasi-surf song with a gnarled riff and dreamy vocal ("Feeling of Love"). But what makes Best Coast so endearing is that Cosentino does all of this on a budget. All of the songs on Make You Mine are fantastically lo-fi, powered by lint-covered guitars, Cosentino's vocals drenched in reverb and floating almost ghostlike over top. It's a heavenly combination, put over by Cosentino's skill for crafting instantly singable melodies.
It shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Cosentino started singing when she was 16, turning out a series of songs that netted her major label interest right out of the gate. She wisely demurred, preferring instead to hone her craft, both on her own and then, briefly, as a member of the duo Pocahaunted (who made such a splash in such a short period of time that they were invited to open for Sonic Youth). But it's as Best Coast that Cosentino's remarkable gifts come fully to the fore. When she announces, Brian Wilson-style, in the album's grizzled opening number, "In this world I lock out all my worries and my fears/ in my room, in my room," it's not much of a shock: all of the songs on Make You Mine have the irresistible smack of the homemade, fantastically shambling and immediately heartwarming heavenly 4-track masterpieces that demand repeated plays.
Hooray for Earth's Momo EP ends the way Brian Eno's Here Come the Warm Jets begins: with a charging bass drum, a flare of distorted guitar and stacked, soaring vocals. Like that record, Momo handily navigates the middle ground between rock and electronic music, layering spaced-out synths over highwire guitars, creating songs that conjure both the past and the future at the same time. The brainchild of primary songwriter Noel Heroux, Hooray for Earth are masters at swaddling irresistible pop hooks in layers of sinewave electronics.
Momo moves more like a short film than an EP. Opening with the steady synth glide of "Surrounded By Your Friends," the album slowly progresses from comfort to gradual unease. The hook in the album's 20-karat pop hit "Get Home" — which could pull double duty as the best Magnetic Fields song since 1999 — is built around the troubling hook "you'll never get home." That it dive-bombs directly into the spiral-eyed psych freakout "Scaling" only puts a finer point on that sentiment.
But what makes Momo so irresistible is the band's knack for unobtrusive, yet completely winning, choruses. "Surrounded By Your Friends" doesn't announce its chief hook, it just eases into it, and you barely even notice it's arrived until you catch yourself singing it for the next three days. Glittery dancefloor mover "Comfortable" pulls the same feat with a faster beat, effortlessly recalling mid 80's New Order. Momo is full of moments like that: perfect pop for the space age, designed with maximum payoff in mind.
Nils Edenloff, the lead singer for the Rural Alberta Advantage, possesses a complete and utter inability to sing with any measure of distance or cynicism. With his nasal, earnest voice, Nils pleads, pledges, confesses, praises and laments. Give him a slice of history like the 1903 disaster in the Canadian mining town of Frank, Alberta that buried an entire town alive beneath a rockslide, bodies still dug from its ruins decades later, and what does he sing? "Under the rubble/ The mountain that tumbled/ I'll hold you forever/ I'll hold you forever," on "Frank, AB." There's an urgency to Nils and Amy Cole and Paul Banwatt, his bandmates. Absorb, experience, write an amazing song about it, repeat.
Hometowns, the RAA's spectacular, doe-eyed debut, isn't the stuff of teenage love, sappy love letters or rapid infatuation. The band sees love in its soup, for sure, but it's the very best kind: earnest and sincere, and honest in its limitations. Take the gorgeous "In the Summertime" and its heart-skipping refrain: "And once in a while/ I know our hearts beat out of time/ And once in a while/ I know they'll fall back in line," all of it delivered in a soft, stoned coo that summons aorta butterflies and eye grins.
One of the first things that will undoubtedly jump out after you download Hometowns is how Neutral Milk Hotel it is. And it's true. Jeff Mangum has obviously impacted this album; he and Nils have similar vocal tones ("non-singer singers" was how Nils described it in our interview) and a similar urgency. Mangum always sounds on the verge of death, each word potentially his last. The RAA doesn't go that far, but the spirit is there. Maybe every sixth word is a "Rosebud" rather than each and every one, but when you hear it, you know it.
The biggest difference between the RAA and NMH comes in the rhythm section. The Arcade Fire, by piling rhythms in endless layers, have helped steer indie into grandiosity — which was it's Achilles Heel in the '90s — and the RAA have taken those lessons to heart. For one, the lineup of the band is essentially Nils singing and playing guitar and Amy and Paul playing percussion. (Amy and Paul contribute more than that — Amy sings quite a bit, for instance — but that's their primary role.) This leads to songs like "Rush Apart" and "Four Night Rider" and "The Deathbridge in Lethbridge" being extremely percussive, explosive even.
In what is probably the least objective close I can imagine, Amy said something really striking to me in our phone interview last week, something that speaks eloquently to why we love this band, and why we chose them for eMusic Selects. Here's Amy: "I remember talking to Nils after we finally got the record and I listened to it all the way through the first time. And I remember talking to [Nils] and saying, 'You know my favorite part about the record is that I believe you. I believe in what you're saying. I totally buy it. '" Simply put, we buy it, too.
Brandon Mitchell isn't Norwegian. So why is he crafting such satisfying cosmic disco? It's a coastal thing. Mitchell, who records under the moniker Altair Nouveau, has lived in California for much of his life — with a short stint in Seattle — where things move at a slightly slower pace, and the sun shines deep and bright. Which is why his synths bubble and buzz contentedly under slow, grooving drum machines that often sound just like the real thing. Where else but near the sea does someone write an ode to Carl Sagan's Cosmos and have it come out sounding like the best single Ratatat never recorded?
Soundtracks, clearly, are a key influence for Mitchell. "Death on Four Wheels" was originally composed for one, and the percolating keyboards on "Street Thunder II" are clearly aching to be licensed by the director of the inevitable remake of Midnight Run. (Mitchell's moustache could some day give Moroder's a run for its money as well.) My favorite moment of Altair's Dark Energy, though, is on the title track, as our boy transitions from solitary funk to drop a pounding kick drum and three separate synth lines interlock to create a bed for some sort of Viking death march. It's the sound of a talented young producer fusing together a few of his favorite sounds to weird and wonderful effect. Highly recommended.
Just as you can never dip your foot twice into the same spot in a river, you can never hear a Julianna Barwick composition a second time. The uncannily poised Brooklyn performer builds her reverberant cathedrals of vocal harmony alone, piling her voice slowly and purposefully up in layers, and every time she sits down to record, it is a new experience. From a few wispy strands of melody, she erects massive, dreaming towers of sound; listening to her music is like witnessing an entire city rise from the ground and crumble back into dust. But when Barwick's foot comes up off the looping pedal and the last echo fades into the air, so does the piece you have just heard. You may still be sitting there spellbound, but Barwick has already moved on, to the next improvisation, the next show, the next moment. The methods might be constant, but the song never remains the same.
Which only makes this ineffably gorgeous six-song EP that much more precious. As a document of Barwick's trancelike approach to music-making, it is fascinating, a window into an intensely personal and spontaneous creative process that sometimes resembles a Zen spiritual practice. But taken at face value, as an album that rewards and demands repeated listens, it is just as stunning. The circling, high-pitched cries that wing the edges of "Cloudbank"; the small, heartbeat-like sound Barwick makes with her mouth on "Choose" that serves as the song's pulse before morphing gradually into a buzzing synth; and maybe most of all, the glittering ice palace that Barwick conjures on "Anjos" with just two rolling pianos, phased apart a la Steve Reich, and some wordless "ooohs": — such moments only increase in wonder when you realize they're essentially byproducts of a fruitful improv session; it's a reminder of just how much beauty you can spill out armed with nothing more than faith in serendipity and a little courage.
As an album, Florine is an immersion in the pure pleasures of sound: Anyone who has ever held down a foot pedal on a piano, banged out a chord, and sat there savoring the resonances will find deep satisfaction in the simple beauty of Barwick's voice as it layers endlessly atop itself. But Florine is much more than a warm bath in a New Agey reflective pool; her on-the-spot compositions are labyrinthine, and you can spend a lifetime getting lost in just one of them. Maybe Julianna has already moved on, but we're going to stick around for awhile with Florine; there's just too much here to discover.
Missy Mazzoli, the young composer who writes the music for the all-female modern classical ensemble Victoire, seems to have a private line on mute anxiety, on quietly nagging uncertainty, and on the four short pieces that comprise the Door Into the Dark EP, she taps it with effortlessness bordering on the uncanny. Her urgent, enigmatic songs feel like 3AM dispatches garbled by a bad connection, with only the occasional loaded phrase puncturing the static. The band's combination of chittering electronics, found sound and repetitive string and woodwind lines eloquently conjures how it feels to helplessly grope for words that don't exist to describe disquiet we can't place, how it feels to be left alone with only the colors of our own thoughts for company. Victoire live in the up-close dots of a Seurat painting, the point where a seemingly clear picture dissolves into incomprehensibility. You can squint and focus, but the harder you train your gaze, the further everything breaks apart.
The five-piece group — rounded out by Eileen Mack on clarinet, Lorna Krier on keyboards/electronics, Eleonore Oppenheim on bass and Olivia De Prato on violin — exists in a nebulous area between indie, chamber pop and modern classical. Many of the groups currently floating in this sphere use their lack of genre simply as an excuse to write vague, underdeveloped music, but Victoire turn indeterminacy to an advantage. Structurally speaking, a song like "I Am Coming for My Things" is made of nothing: it is built on a terse, flat voicemail message from an utterly defeated-sounding woman ("I am coming for my things ...I don't have any money"), scored with the flutter of a single violin, the ghost of a cello and a softly keening clarinet. That is (mostly) it, save for an equal-parts violent and beatific meltdown at the two-minute mark. And yet the piece hums with the exquisitely alive awareness of a Webern miniature, each voice calling out, profoundly alone, into the cavernous white space surrounding it.
"Door Into the Dark" finds a similar allure in ambiguity, both harmonic and emotional. De Prato's violin delicately walks up and down the same five steps with a hesitant, reiterative rhythm, as if continually correcting itself mid-thought. Mack's clarinet floats somewhere in tonal limbo behind it, sounding long, yearning low notes, before both trail off unexpectedly, leaving behind only the watery keys, which feel like the last traces of a dream, the vague shapes that remain after your eyes open and the details have fled your consciousness.
The dark-horse element that gives Victoire's soundscapes their teeth and texture is undoubtedly Lorna Krier's mesmerizing keyboards and electronics. On "Like A Miracle," a fluttering, processed "aah" that pans left and right is both captivating and disorienting, like sunlight glittering on water. Then, a distorted MIDI piano wells up from the background and slowly devours the track whole. On "A Song For Arthur Russell," an insistent tapping somewhere between Morse code and a clacking typewriter beats away while keyboards, clarinet and processed vocals pulse in the foreground. Like all the songs on this beguiling EP, it urges you to lean forward, to decode the message just out of earshot. But there is no secret, nothing that needs unlocking, just four gorgeous and inscrutable pieces of music worth puzzling over.
Luke Winslow-King was born in Michigan and moved to New Orleans a decade ago, a familiar migration for many a Midwestern boy, its loose women, all-night jazz and free-flowing drink a kept promise to hungry-eyed dreamers everywhere. Post-industrialization, it's the reason why anyone moves to a city: boredom. A limited gene pool for procreation. A life defined by family, clergy, teachers, coworkers, boyfriends, whoever. Not defined by you being what matters.
The adopted home of New Orleans defines Old/New Baby, Luke Winslow-King's incredible new record for eMusic Selects. Its Dixieland and ragtime jazz — stronger beacons than any lighthouse — don't just influence these songs, they direct them. Winslow-King is familiar with M. Ward and the other indie singer-songwriters of the day ("All the Same" and, structurally, "The Sun Slamming the Highway" in particular exhibit familiar traits), but both the root and the dressing of all twelve songs come from the parishes. There's banjo, sousaphone, washboard, trumpet, trombone, slide, clarinet, accordion, viola, cello, you get the idea, all of it played, arranged and recorded expertly. (Engineer Earl Scioneaux — through whom we discovered this album — deserves tremendous credit.)
As you might expect, the music itself is intensely likeable. From the tuba huffs of "As April Is to May," it's non-stop charm: sly horns, jazz guitar, a housebroken little slice of New Orleans culture. Sometimes the band gets hot — "Birthday Stomp" especially — and they tumble all over each other, jockeying for prime microphone position. The arrangements add to the feeling, the structure simultaneously cohesive and loose, the kind of feat only the skilled can pull off consistently.
Broadly speaking, Old/New Baby breaks down into two distinct song types: songs to regale the whole family while the prized daughter gets dressed upstairs, and songs to get her undressed later on. Give this man a ukulele and he is as likely to sing a goofy song about being sleepy ("Never Tired") as he is to sing about a boat gone-a-rockin '("St. Andrew's Ferry"). This was once the province of traveling men, the troubadours and bluesmen fathers wisely warned their daughters about.
There's something of that traveling troubadour to Winslow-King, that romantic notion of the wandering soul whose songs reveal deep truths and faraway lands. He's spent the past few years playing the New Orleans streets, and now he makes his bid for this little internet neighborhood of ours called eMusic. We hope he never leaves.
For a country-rock outfit, Blue Giant boast a pretty serious indie pedigree. Their lineup includes Kevin and Anita Robinson, the songwriting duo behind Viva Voce, on guitar and vocals; Chris Funk (guitarist for the Decemberists) manning the pedal steel; Seth Lorinczi (of Circus Lupus, among others) handles the bass, organ and piano; Evan Railton of the Swords Project on drums; and guest vocals from Sleater-Kinney's Corin Tucker. Throw in Bradford Cox (put him on tambourine duty, maybe) and you'd have a straight flush.
As it stands, this might look like an unlikely crowd to tackle No Depression-style alt-country, but it seems every indie-rockers 'inner Gram Parsons will out, and the Robinsons, thankfully, aren't using country-rock to play dress-up. There are no Carter Family covers here, no songs about pushing plows or "drinkin'." They seem more interested in country-rock's purposeful timelessness, the pointed way it strips away frivolities and forces economical songwriting.
They have risen to this implicit challenge; every song on their sturdy debut EP bears the long, clean lines of classic country-rock. The opening track, "Target Heart," hinges on the plainspoken phrase "you keep shooting at my target heart." Save for this repeated lyric, and others very close to it, there's not much else going on: alternating C and G chords, a patient drum beat and shimmering threads of pedal steel reverberating into the empty spaces. But it's hypnotic and absorbing, each flourish — a billowing guitar here, a gentle wash of cymbals there — registering with heightened impact.
The rest of the EP is just as special, whether it's the foot-stomping rave-up "Blue Sunshine," which veers closer to Appalachia than most alt-country acts dare go; or the sweetly sashaying "Lonely Girl," which suspends Anita's wispy croon over more glowing webs of pedal steel from Chris Funk. You might not think that years in a hyper-literate indie-pop band would be adequate apprenticeship for country-rock, but Funk turns out to be an extraordinarily sensitive pedal-steel player, and he might just be Blue Giant's secret weapon, the element that sends these simple, rough-hewn songs skyward.
The EP closes on a darker note, with swirling strings and arpeggiated guitar spiraling downward as Kevin gravely warns: "Come hell or high water, you're gonna love me." It's a hint at a broader range, which we now have the pleasure of waiting for; for the time being, though, this EP is lovely company, and a promising debut in its own right.
"I am seriously depressed about my level of energy," Diva Dompe sighs at the outset the aptly-titled "Energy Song." Really? You are? Because if you're low on energy, the rest of us are stone dead, sad pale excuses for viable human beings. Throughout Blackblack Diva and sister Lola (with some assistance from ex-Phantom Planet vocalist Alex Greenwald on guitar) bound, leap, squeal and shout, barreling through eight gloriously ragtag pop songs, focusing on the frayed edges and the big blemishes instead of the shiny centers. Blackblack make imperfection perfect, proudly brandishing ragged guitars, pounding on busted drums and choosing a giddy holler over a practiced croon.
It's the revival of a lost aesthetic, the same kind of ragged charm favored by old-time indie heartthrobs like BMX Bandits and Talulah Gosh and Marine Girls, the order of the day before someone showed up with the soap and water and singing lessons and turned the whole enterprise into a crash course in good manners. "The Most! The Best! The Greatest!" is impish and hyperactive, Diva and Lola belting out the chorus — "The most! The Best! The Greatest! Foreverrrr! Foreeehhveehhrrrr!" — over and over as guitars collide behind them. They veer beautifully off-pitch again and again — which is precisely what the song demands.
It doesn't hurt that the sisters sound like grade schoolers, their voices brash and naïve. In "I Wish I Were a Scientist" Diva could be a 6 year-old dropout, pouting, "I wish I were a scientist/ but I've never been good in school" as guitars twitch and cymbals crash haphazardly. Elsewhere she's introspective, sighing "do you like sugar in your tears" atop moping bass. And if the music is just as green -- a cluster of bare guitar chords, some out-of-time drums — so much the better. It's the kind of wild abandon some people call "amateurish," some call "winning," some call "punk."
Here's something else you can call it: energy.
The mod pop of the late '60s — Small Faces, Kinks, etc — fathers Sprengjuhöllin, its orchestrations, its openly emotive moods and somewhat fey inclinations towards grandeur all representative of the naiveté and boldness of youth. But just because mod fathered Sprengjuhöllin doesn't make it their destiny. Instead, the deeper you get, the more diffuse their sound becomes: hints of Super Furry Animals and Gorky's Zygotic Mynci and other particularly European, skewed-pop bands shade the hues of these ten exceptional songs the wistful, fading yellow of a cherished photograph.
Assuming that, unlike Sprengjuhöllin, you are not from Reykjavik, there is a sizeable language barrier here. All but one of the songs is sung in Icelandic — the language does not share many cognates with English, lemme assure you — and so the normal, lyrical entryway is impeded, requiring us to connect much more on a musical level than a narrative one. (Fortunately we talked with two members of the band who explained to us what each of these songs is about, and you can find that information here. And you should read it, as their tales are amazing.)
The one English-language song, "Worry 'Til Spring," is an absolute marvel. It begins with a modest acoustic guitar and a hushed, brogue-ish tenor lamenting, "I've known her since June/ But she's always immune/ To every smile that I give her." And then, out of nowhere, comes a triumphant chorus: a French horn, some drums and a voice transformed from timid to bold, the impotent self-questioning now a declaration that even if the result is self-defeating, he will at least act: "I just want you to know/ That one day I'll let go/ And you can worry 'til spring/ And then I'll vanish." Any budding relationships should make this their theme song right now.
Elsewhere, Sprengjuhöllin vacillate between fuzzy rock and stark balladry — and they handle both with confident ease. "Keyrum Yfir Ísland" is the big rock number (phasers phasing, strummers strumming, geese a'laying); "Taktlaus" is the shiny, Jam-like punk tune; "Flogin Er Finka" is moving, piano-based Coldplay moroseness; and "Nú Er Tíminn" could have easily appeared on an early album from the Kinks or the Action — good, head-shaking '60s rock. And then there's "Sumar í Múla," in which the band consciously plays through the history of pop music from the '60s to today, incorporating Motown, disco, synth pop, Brit pop and much more into an awesomely goofy, awesomely awesome tune.
There's always a danger with foreign language albums to fetishize, to respond more to the otherness than the content itself. But with Sprengjuhöllin, this is absolutely not the case. These five dudes from Iceland make exceptional guitar pop, and we couldn't be prouder to present these ten songs to you. Dig in.
NOTE: For more on what exactly Sprengjuhöllin are singing about, click here!
This delightful and highly inventive collection of lo-fi archival recordings is the result of a wonderful accident, one that's sent shock waves through both the soul music and the art worlds. The story goes like this: Back in 2004, a Washington, DC-based private investigator and soul aficionado named Dori Hadar went crate digging in a flea market and struck gold. Hadar discovered dozens of highly detailed, expressively-drawn R&B album covers from the late '60s and early '70s, with fake cardboard LPs inside them and, in some cases, even faked stickers affixed to the outside. They were by imaginary artists with names like Mingering Mike and the Big "D." One of them was a benefit album for sickle cell anemia; another was a tribute to Bruce Lee. After posting images and discussing his find on the Soul Strut website, Hadar knew he had to find the creator. Mingering Mike turned out to be a gentle recluse who declined much publicity; as it turned out, he didn't want to lose his two day jobs as a result of any notoriety. The music here is filled with bottomless joy and a true love for soul music and culture.
We're not joking about the fidelity issues. This stuff was recorded on cheap condenser mics using home equipment almost 40 years ago. Mingering Mike makes Daniel Johnston sound like ELO when it comes to sound quality. But none of the music is unlistenable by any means. "But All I Can Do Is Cry," for instance, actually exploits the funky equipment to its full potential. With a weirdly distorting handclap (I think?) that sounds like a broken drum machine, the song could be some forgotten union of Suicide and the Commotions. All of the album's beats are provided by proto-rap beat-boxing or the sound of an Afro-pick hitting a phone book. The sounds of trumpets, guitars and bass all come from vocals provided by Mike and his cousin, the Big "D." There are bizarre faux-African numbers ("Mandingo"), a lengthy dirge about getting buried alive ("Nail in My Coffin"), and love songs that follow the arc from infatuation to love ("There's Nothing Wrong With You Baby"). The immediate hit has to be "Coffee Cake" — a hilarious, 10-minute paean to the joys of coffee cake which makes superb New York School poetry when presented in written form ("The man said it was in this aisle/ Over in the sweets and bread section/ I haven't had it in a long time/ Tastes good with ice cream!"). If there is any justice in the world, the song will make it on to thousands of mixtapes. Adventurous music fiends will discover a brilliant populist hiding beneath Mingering Mike's mask. All you have to do is listen.
Be sure to visit Mingering Mike's homepage for more on his remarkable story and to get a look at his incredible art.
A hi-res version of the cover of Super Gold Greatest Hits is available here
The 22-year-old Randolph Chabot is Deastro, a one-man machine synthesizing Death Cab for Cutie, M83, LCD Soundsystem and other future-rock practitioners into a glitzy world overflowing with regret. Keeper's 'ten songs are culled from demos and home recordings Chabot pieced together in his parents 'basement, a land decidedly far from the dance floors and neon-lit city streets of his music, a place where his bald yearning and incredible talents find no boundaries, a place where he still lives. Like any dreamer, Chabot's imagined world is infinitely better than the one where he resides, "a place where I am free," as he sings in "The Goodman of the House." After learning more and more of his life, I can't help but to think of Chabot as Bastion of The Neverending Story, a young man subtly shifting from spectator to hero in a world of his own creation.
And make no mistake: Keeper's is wholly Chabot's. Certainly M83 has influenced the cut of Chabot's jib, and his voice unmistakably shares qualities with that of Ben Gibbard. But the crisp, sparkling environs of Keeper's come from one young man, and one man alone. Chabot has no other collaborators, and his songs — even with their swooping electronics, enormous guitars and startling self-assurance — ring with a vulnerability that can only come from a belief that no one would ever hear them. Sure, they are about love and longing — universal inspirations — but they are also acutely idiosyncratic, the product of an imagination that has yet to meet an obstacle it can't thwart.
"The Shaded Forests," the album's amazingly pop track (if someone told you this was the new Killers single, you wouldn't blink), is built around the following lyric: "When the wolf lays down to marry the lamb/ He'll lay down his fangs, he'll lay down his plans/ I told you, we're gonna be fine/ I t-t-t-t-told you, we're taking our time" (that last stuttering revealing a bit of Ric Ocasek in our boy), as if he's Hansel telling Gretel to hang in there, we ain't no cake, yet.
Spiraling out from "The Shaded Forests" — and "spiral" is the perfect word for the towering, Autobahn tones of "Michael the Lone Archer of the North Shore" and the spaghetti sci-fi instrumental "Light Powered" — the album's heart rate ebbs, songs like "The Green Harbor" and "The Floating Cradle" emotionally naked and fragile: in the latter, Chabot's self-harmonizing falsetto beckons like a Greek siren. And then there's the cathartic "Leah's Daughter the Giraffe," strings plucking while Chabot gorgeously coos "Oooooh/ The difference is your... eyes."
It bears repeating: Randolph Chabot is only 22-years-old. Music like this doesn't just happen, especially not when only one person is involved. That wunderkind word used at the beginning of this review was carefully weighed, and we stand by it. To return to the fairy tale idea, this could absolutely be one. Except fairy tales end, and for Randolph, this is merely the beginning.
After the first-ever Crystal Stilts show in December 2003, Hamish Kilgour of New Zealand band the Clean approached them and said: "You guys were fantastic, the most interesting of the night — it reminded me of when I went to England in '83 and bought the first Jesus & Mary Chain single." Could there possibly be a better start to a career? As Stilts bassist Andy Adler announced, after sharing the anecdote when we met the band, "it's all downhill from there."
Having endured a Job-like start to 2008 (all of their gear stolen — wait, make that impounded), just a few weeks ago the Stilts were confronting whether they should even continue being a band, a notion all the more absurd after you listen to these seven songs — the bulk of the Brooklyn foursome's recordings to date. Sure, Hamish probably overstated it a bit — who knows, though, we weren't there — but there is something in these dingy recordings of minimalist post-punk pop that supersedes pretty much everything else we have heard in a long, long time.
The two best songs are "Crippled Croon" and "Converging in the Quiet," their sullen, confident melodies shining brightest, their fidelity sounding the most like something post-Edison in the history of recorded sound. "Crippled Croon" is mush-mouthed and loose, an upper-register guitar line recalling everything great about Echo and the Bunnymen, early Cure and that whole bag, with Brad Hargett's vocals slackadaisical to a ridiculous — and endearing — degree.
"Converging" is the better-written song, the little post-chorus instrumental bit really nice and cinematic, the whole thing extremely well put-together in a way that — and we say this with love and affection — some of their other songs are not. "Converging" strikingly intersects Hargett's buried-alive vocals, JB Townsend's shrugging guitars and Adler's gesturing bass in some awesome heroin-spike harmony. Though it didn't start out as such, it's now by far my favorite Crystal Stilts moment.
There are others, too, including the really rough demo for "Through the Floor" that we drunkenly convinced the band to include (thanks guys!). Somehow, the rougher-sounding the better with these kids, and in a way that goes beyond the whole warehouses & lofts & sirens & streets & broken windows & peeling walls Brooklyn fetish. Farther down 'neath the hipster mythos, reverb topography and the band's rough treatment are amazing songs by four smart and funny people who we couldn't be prouder to support. You're gonna love this. We promise.
Get in. Get dizzy. Get out. That's the slashed-up synth-pop gameplan of London's Hands on Heads, a quartet whose hyper-caffeinated songs hover around the one-minute mark. There is method, though: doses of frantic keyboard skronk quickly give way to bouncy singalongs, often several times in the same song. And don't say they didn't warn you: raucous blurt of an album opener "Is An Umbrella Really Necessary?" lasts all of 35 seconds. No wave don't mean no fun.
Erase Errata's mangled guitar scratches, the one-finger keyboard jabs of Numbers and even the wacked-out, life-affirming synth anthems of Atom and His Package echo across Hands on Heads. But it's neither tribute or regurgitation, as the songs — which they say are about "righteous joy" and "the supernatural everyday" — pummel while showing whimsy, even as they buzzsaw your skull. Check the descending bizzaro-carnival organ line on "Romantic Aorta" or the punk-playground anthem "X as Two Sticks," that galloping squall of a verse stopping on a dime for a surprisingly sing-songy chorus. Totally (Melt) bananas.
Through it all, Luke and Christopher (the bassist and guitarist who split vocal duties) yelp wide-eyed about not wanting to be alone, "drawing triangles on the walls" and other gloriously sincere teenagisms. On the sprawling (almost-three minutes!) "Witches & Lightning" (a demo we talked them into giving us because it's so awesome), we're told, "Right now/ I believe in you more/ Than facts and figures."
We're just surprised that they bought into facts and figures in the first place.
We are living in a post-indie world. Over the past decade, indie rock has slowly and deliberately shed its roots in the punk and hardcore movements of the '80s: we've gone from to Lou to Sufjan as our de facto figureheads. The challenging aesthetics of the SST/Touch & Go ('80s and '90s editions) crowd have been softened to more traditional — albeit skewed — forms of songwriting, production and performing. Part of it is the influx of money (and yay for that — people need to get paid!), and part is the bar for what "matters" getting raised. There's no use judging that shift — it was inevitable — but it is worth pointing out that the maturation has marginalized artists who don't toe the (anti-)company line. The stuff that's poppy and cute gets popular; the stuff that challenges does not. It's a meritocracy of sound, so the question is: is there any room left for the weirdos?
All of this is sorta related to our two new eMusic Selections: Hands On Heads and Susu, a trio from Brooklyn. To put a contemporary tag on them, Susu play noise-rock. To put a more appropriate but less faddish tag on them, they play math-rock and/or post-hardcore. You will certainly hear echoes of Sonic Youth in these six excellent, fierce songs, but there's also lots of Unwound, Hoover, Don Caballero and basically the entire city of Chicago from 1992 to 1998. So yeah, you could call Susu a throwback — cuz they are. (You could also call them awesome, cuz they're that, too.)
The intensely loud, epic and barking "Hands Up (The Race)" jumps out immediately. "I've got MY/ Hands UP!" and "Get! Your! Handssssup!" yelps singer/bassist Michael Andrew as Andrea Havis 'guitar and Oliver Rivera-Drew's drums swirl, clash and implode around him. From there it fits and starts, churning, chugging and soaring a bit like Unwound's best moment, "For Your Entertainment" off of Repetition.
"Anarchitect" is the math-iest song here, from the clever title to the awesomely idiotic lyrics ("An architect/ Had no neck/ It's not that interesting/ But it is happening") that somehow convince you to shout along by the ending reprise. And then there's "In the Pool," Win's propulsive sleeper hit. All three Susu members are incredibly talented musicians, and it really shows here, with Rivera-Drew doing a great Damon Che with his tom work, Havis slaying with her open-chord hangs in the verses and Andrew flogging the horse with his pounding bass.
Win could have come out on Dischord or Touch & Go in 1993, which is meant as a compliment. It's a record that doesn't fit into now — now, these days, meaning within your last RSS feed — and that's a genuine shame. The underground was where the marginalized once went for solace, but hegemony is a bitch, and so now there must be an underground within the underground within the underground. There, Susu clearly have a home and an audience; our hope is that this excellent collection will get them even more.
Breathe Owl Breathe sing of folklore and homespun miracles, oral histories left to thaw in the earth's crust until pre-history's giant ice cubes rolled their wet bulk down the North Pole and into Canada, finally settling into extinction in what we now call the Great Lakes. It's from the shores of these bodies that Breathe Owl Breathe come (Ann Arbor, Michigan, to be precise), and it's in the shadows of those hollowed troughs that these eight songs rest. These are songs about being left behind, songs about being dead, songs without geography, songs worth repeating.
The music is very economical — guitar, cello, drums, piano, other organic sounds — and the vocals float between folk and country, a very earnest mood. It sounds a lot like Smog — singer Micah Middaugh and Bill Callahan have similar voice boxes — and at other times early Lucinda Williams, Victoria Williams and, in the case of "Your Cape," even Loretta Lynn. There's a distinctly — and very specifically — American folk tradition at work here, and I don't get the feeling that Breathe Owl Breathe at all mind their limited scope.
The kinda stuff that drew Alan Lomax and Harry Smith deep into Appalachia and the American South forms the foundation of Breathe Owl Breathe's spare, rustic sound. When singer Micah Middaugh belts, "I've got a toboggan," in the last cut, it could easily pass for a boast, a cataloguing of lower-class luxury the way bluesmen might sing of women and whiskey. Mostly Middaugh and his Colombian co-vocalist/cellist Andréa Moreno-Beals sing about ghosts and winter (it is a descriptive album title), sometimes literally ("Playing Dead," "Toboggan," "Sabertooth Tiger") and sometimes in the context of a relationship ("Your Cape," "Sylvia Plath").
The marriage of their music and lyrics is the sort of chance meeting that becomes a 60th anniversary in a blink. Middaugh, Moreno-Beals and drummer Trevor Hobbs are easy and fluid with one another, enabling their songs to (deceptively) feel more like happy accidents than serious, premeditated songwriting. That's where their charm lies. And that's why we chose them for eMusic Selects. Whether or not you're listening hardly matters: this music has always existed, and always will.
Mary Pearson and Rob Barber are Brooklyn-based duo High Places and 03/07 — 09/07, as the title suggests, collects the band's work from a six-month period in 2007. Some of it has been released on 7-inches and compilations, some of it is available on eMusic exclusively for the first time. All of it is eMusic Selects. The best description I've heard of the band's tunes? "Every national anthem going off at the same time in a bucket of water." Indeed, High Places ride that careful line between unadulterated anthem and a muddy effects-laden mess, emerging with discombobulating dubby masterpieces.
"Head Spins" bounces along on aquatic steel drums, good vibes and a melody built from samples drained almost completely of their source material. "Sandy Feat" is Beat Happening via King Tubby. Perhaps the most surprising moment is a commission that the group received from Pearson's mother. She asked the duo to write a song for the elementary school at which she teaches. "Jump In" doesn't have a lot of the murkiness that colors much of High Places output thus far. Instead, it nakedly showcases the bells, whistles, woodblocks and doodad's that the group buries underneath. It's a revelatory moment here — Pearson and Barber aren't just noiseniks having fun, they're first-rate pop songwriters.
With their short songs and inclination toward miniaturized releases, it's clear that High Places aren't big on mission statements. You could fairly say that 03/07 — 09/07 reflects what happens when a classically trained bassoonist heads out of the academy (Pearson) and a former hardcore kid gets into the noise scene (Barber). Sure, it's awfully specific and honest, but that's pretty much the charm of High Places. Jump in.