I take it back, I take it back!

Hi, everyone!  We here at the Indie Handbook have a very important announcement to make.  Throughout the (glorious) month of May, we’ll be running a big indie contest, and we want EVERYONE to take part in it.  We have some fantastic prizes lined up that I’m not sure I can disclose yet (Eric, I’ll leave that to you), and hopefully, we’ll have some other special surprises to supplement the awesomeness of the contest.  I’m actually just kind of throwing the “more cool stuff” idea out there in anticipation that we can come up with other cool stuff, but the prizes are seriously existent and fabulous.  But, in order to get this contest up and running, we need some things from you.

What do we need from you?
1. More prizes!!  Ok, we will survive without more prizes because what we’ve got is great, but the better and more abundant the prizes, the more fun for you.  So, if you are a musician/artist/creative person and you have anything you think would be a kickass prize, let us know!
2. Become our fan on Facebook.  This will make more sense later.

Stay tuned–we’ll be announcing the contest and prizes soon.  In the meantime, try not to be too bored.

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Now, down to business.  I have to admit, sometimes I read things I’ve written, especially things I wrote a long time ago, and I’m really embarrassed.  For this reason, I refuse to link to the post I wrote almost exactly a year ago about She & Him and how un-indie they are and how Paste sucks for making the album Best of 2008 and how everyone just likes Zooey Deschanel because she’s cute.

I won’t link to it, but I will tell you right now that I’ve listened to Volume Two and I’ve watched the video for “In the Sun,” (thanks Laura–by the way everyone, Laura’s at an Elton John concert tonight and I am pissed I’m not there), and I love She & Him.  You know what?  After I wrote that post about how much they annoyed me, and how listening to them doesn’t make a person indie, I listened to Volume One for like 3 weeks at work.  I hated Zooey Deschanel because all the indie boys love her, and you know what?  I give up.  I love her, she’s effing adorable.  My god, everything is just coming out, isn’t it?

Volume Two is great, an extension of Volume One in title and sound.  Zooey and M. (can I call him M.?) have kept that lovely, melodic, sugary sweet pop sound but have matured in their BGV’s and layered harmonies.  I like hearing a bit more of M. and what he can do, and the arrangements/instrumentals are spot on.  I mean, let’s be honest.  She & Him are like the Fun Dip of the musical world.  I can’t listen to it and not be happy.  Even the sad songs make me happy.  Something about it all seems exaggeratedly simple, almost devoid of the typical emotional connection between the musician and the tunes.  If there is even the tiniest streak of confession in this album, it is so heavily veiled that it has little effect on the listener…and I think that quality puts She & Him in a category of their own.  Plus, Zooey’s voice is just about perfect.

I’m not going to review the entire album, but I do want to address another thing about that horrible post I wrote a year ago.  Here’s the thing…my whole premise for hating She & Him was that people think listening to Paste’s Best of the Year album makes them indie.  Eric and I think and talk a lot about what indie is (we can’t really figure it out) and we laugh at hipsters, because gosh,  the whole thing just seems ridiculous.  When it all comes down to it, we want to listen to whatever the hell we want to listen to, and we want you to do the same.  We would just prefer whatever it is to be good, created by talented and creative people who put some heart into what they do, because why wouldn’t you want to be a part of something good?  So whatever indie is, I’m sorry for telling you that you can’t be it because you listen to She & Him.  Although if you are a hipster, I will still laugh at you.

Next post: Eric, admitting his love for Fleet Foxes.  And flannel.  Stay tuned.

Sweet Disposition

Happy Spring everyone!  At least here, it feels like it has finally arrived…actually it has skipped to summer and we have 90 degree heat, but whatever.  There’s something very seasonal about music, and I’m looking forward to what spring and summer will bring this year.  But more on that later.  Right now, I’m listening to an album that came out in October.  I know, I know, a little late, but to be fair, The Temper Trap makes beautiful music and they deserve a good review.  Also to be fair, I don’t know that I am often on time.  You should be used to it by now.  This review was supposed to be finished last week before I went to Florida…oops.

Anyone who is up on Australia’s latest big talents, Diet Coke commercials, or the 500 Days of Summer soundtrack will recognize the hypnotic, electric “Sweet Disposition”.  My husband has been listening to this track on repeat for awhile now, and it’s about time we check out the album Conditions as a whole.  The craftsmen of this lovely track are Australia’s indie pride, The Temper Trap, loosely termed as an alternative indie rock band among the ranks of Bloc Party, MGMT, or even (well, I don’t know) the Gorillaz.  Whatever, I like the Gorillaz.

If you pop in Conditions expecting to find 9 more versions of “Sweet Disposition,” I can’t promise that you’ll find what you’re looking for.  Sure, most tracks share the same moody electricity and soaring vocals…Dougie Mandagi possesses an incredible range and sweeeeeet falsetto (the opposite of Andy Bernard, Office fans).  Somehow, though, each track surprises me–I didn’t expect the bizarre paradox of awesome album structure as a whole–really, everything fits!– and such difference in song style.  Tracks like “Love Lost” and “Resurrection” mix 70’s funk with modern layers, guitar riffs, and builds.  I hear classic rock influences in “Fader” and “Science of Fear,” and maybe some Brit-rock influence in “Down River.”  “Soldier On,” like “Sweet Disposition” sets itself apart from the rest of the album, but because of its more haunting, acoustic sound, which doesn’t phase into the Temper Trap’s classic layered, harmonic sound until the very end.  Lyrically, I have less of an idea of what’s going on.  Maybe I’m spacey or just stupid, but I think Conditions is a nice thinking album, and I’ve been satisfied to do just that while I listen, rather than picking for all the lyrics.  Sorry.  I know they are there for a reason!  Anyway, overall, this album is completely worth a purchase for reasons other than the lovely “Sweet Disposition.”  I’m really most impressed that I can use the phrase “the Temper Trap’s classic sound.”  I do believe that they’ve done a spectacular  job introducing themselves with Conditions, giving us an idea of all they have to offer, and a creating a sound that is indeed their very own, no imitation.  We’re ready for more!

Newes from Scotland

MOPP

Keeping with the “what I did on my spring break” theme, I reckon it’s about time I talk a bit about Glasgow, the sexiest city in the world, where everyone is effortlessly fashionable and Americans confidently mispronounce the name. Given that the Glasgow scene is typically lightyears ahead of everyone else, I figured it was best to pick a club, sit back, and listen. In the end, I spent two nights at Bloc+. Following is a selection of what I heard, in chronological order.

Louise Against the Elements: LAE opened the Slow Club Night (not, to my knowledge, related in any way to Slow Club the band) sporting a stripped down version of their normal set up (which, as I understand it, is sort of the idea of the night). Their sound is oozes American soul and blues rock influences, not that I want to label it an American knock-off (in fact, new research suggests that much American roots music is knock off of Scottish tradition). The music is definitely worth a listen. If I were to offer criticism to the band it would be in the arrangement of the set list. Namely, that it could benefit from some more rhythmic variation among the first few numbers and that they ought to close with “Baby Blue”, which is, by far, their best song.

Closing out the Slow Club gig were The Cinnamons. The magazine I read advertising the gig touted the band’s catchy synthpop. Synthpop, however, does not translate well in an acoustic setting. What does come across loud and clear? These guys can write an incredible hook! I might even go so far as to say that I prefer the acoustic set up—which is not to take anything away from their intended, plugged-in, sound—but the stripped down version makes the band’s uncanny melody-writing ability undeniably apparent. Check out “Analog Man” and “Dead Man’s Shoes”.

The next night was a gig sponsored by Detour Scotland, a relatively new monthly podcast spotlighting the best in Scottish music—with a twist. It is really worth checking out: detour-scotland.com. I’ll embed one of their videos from this particular gig at the end of this post. Detour night brought four bands and more people than fire codes should probably allow. It was hot and crowded, the girl next to me smelled strongly of vinegar, and, in the end, proved to be one of the most memorable gigs of my life, for which one of the acts, MOPP, is more than moderately responsible.

Kristin asked me yesterday what I think the next big thing to come out of Glasgow will be. I’m not sure, really. But I will say that MOPP could likely be the “next to next big thing”(that is, something else will probably crop up before that, but this has staying power). Essentially, it’s 80s-laden, uber-reverbed, monumental pop—everything you love about 80s synth music without all the creepiness of “The Air Tonight” (dear God, I hate that song!…). I hesitate to even attempt to describe it any further. All I will say is that, before the show, everyone I spoke to told me it was going to be phenomenal and, having now heard MOPP, I would have to say that, if anything, “phenomenal” is an understatement.

For those of you who are so inclined, (which ought to be anyone looking for good music) visit MOPP on MySpace. Whilst you’re there check out his remixes at the bottom of the playlist. I am a particular fan of the remix of Oasis’s “Wonderwall”, though there’s a Phoenix remix on there as well for those of you reluctant to venture beyond pre-approved contemporary indie fare.

That’s it for now. I will award 83 Sexy Indie Nerd (SIN) points to anyone who can identify the source of the title of this post (without Googling it). And, if you’ve read it, you can be my best friend and maybe we can make out a little bit the next time we see each other.

As winter gives way.

I have to say, Eric’s trip to Scotland lined up pretty well with Frightened Rabbit’s sophomore album release, Winter of Mixed Drinks.  And since I couldn’t go with Eric to Scotland to see incredible shows and meet wonderful people/be best friends with bands, this is my tribute post, in the form of an album review.  Dear Scotland, your music is really good, great even, and I am pretty happy about Frightened Rabbit, so thank you.

If the word has not lost all its meaning to you by now because of its overuse, I contend that Winter of Mixed Drinks is indeed an EPIC album.  The intensity of the lyrics, the tension in the chord progressions, the slow, measured construction of layers, and the unceasing rhythmic drive demand it be called what it is.  However, I do own a thesaurus, and so the words “monumental” and “colossal” may also be used.  There is not a wasted track on this album; it is perfectly refined without losing its edge.  Not a single song lacks that passion and sincerity that I demand out of a good album; in order for an album to be “whole,” the listener needs to know that the lyrics mean something to the musician.  We don’t want distance.  As a person who lives with fierce emotion, I appreciate hearing that emotion elsewhere, rather than just seeing it in myself.  Affirmation, connection.  Words without a sense of musical genuineness mean almost nothing.  If you can write lyrics, but not music…find a friend.  What I’m trying to say is…Frightened Rabbit has got it right.  They affirm, and to those who aren’t so emotional, they evoke.

So about these lyrics.  Painfully romantic homages to loneliness weave through every track, gushing with confessions of loss and weary coping.  The imagery moves from dynamic, almost frantic on tracks like “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” and “The Loneliness and the Scream” (It wasn’t me, I didn’t dig this ditch, I was walking for weeks before I fell in) to stagnant exhaustion on “Skip the Youth” (I would but I am so tired, if I can’t shake myself I can’t dance with you)Winter of Mixed Drinks tells of heartbreak with little hope, and I have to think of “Living in Colour” as the light, hoping that based on the title, the listener knows that life moves in seasons, and the winter of mixed drinks, the season of despondency, is not eternal.  Force the life through still veins, fill my heart with red again.

Please, don’t leave this world to me

It’s been awhile, gosh! We’re sorry we’ve been MIA for a bit. Eric is in Scotland looking for his true love and seeing great shows, and I had to work some late hours last week for my day job. But, this week, all is well, Eric is gallavanting around Edinburgh or some other incredible place, drinking good beer (or not, if I know Eric), and I am getting my Scottish fix from the new Frightened Rabbit album, a review of which will come soon after I’ve let it sink in a little more.

Tonight, I come to you with an overdue review of The Big Black and the Blue by some of my very favorite kindred-spirit, painfully honest, spirited young musicians, who I feel I would really appreciate if I were ever to have a beer with them, or maybe coffee, because I’m almost positive they aren’t old enough to drink in the States. Instead, I am listening to their album in my little kitchen in Virginia, and I want you to know, Klara and Johanna, I think your music should be in every kitchen in the US! Seriously, though, let’s talk about First Aid Kit.

Klara and Johanna gave us a little hint of their storytelling, mood-setting potential with their Drunken Trees EP, and with their new album, they’re expanding on that and proving to us that no, they haven’t exhausted the possibilities, and yes, they are going to keep the moving folk tunes coming. Musically speaking, these girls have something very special. They harmonize beautifully, and they know how to make their voices work with them, filling them with character…frustration and angst come through on “I Met Up With The King” (we mean nothing to history/oh thank God), while tenderness breaks through on the following track, “Wills of the River.” You’ll find these kinds of ups and downs on the entire album as the girls explore their feelings about the nature of their own lives and humanity, either by the weaving of lovely narratives (“In the Morning,” “Josefin” or by blunt expositions of their own experiences or opinions (“Hard Believer,” “A Window Opens,” “Winter is All Over You,” to name just a very few). The acoustics are well-suited to the vocals (and vice versa!), sort of a throwback to more traditional folk songs. It’s natural, it’s folk, it’s alive, it’s genius, it speaks, you’ll love it.

There’s something else aboutThe Big Black and the Blue that I love, and it’s hard to explain exactly what it is. The ladies of First Aid Kit make me proud. They unashamedly wear their hearts on their sleeves, they’re painfully self-aware (one of my favorite qualities in a person, and especially in a musician), and they’ve got great spirit! I promise this isn’t the part where I just start talking about myself, like when you’re telling someone about a story about yourself and they interrupt to tell their story about that time that the exact same thing happened to them except it was better BUT they remind me of myself, living and exploring and asking questions, realizing they don’t know it all and looking for truth, seeing the tension in the world between the aches & pains and the moments of sheer bliss, using art to express and process. First Aid Kit gets an enormous A+ from me just for that.

Draygo’s Guilt-y of exploring New Canyons with Lars Ludvig Löfgren

Lars Ludvig LofgrenI’m falling behind on—well—just about everything these days. I’ve got months worth of music to review and not enough time to post them, so I am going to be crazy efficient today one band from each of the three largest exporters of music in the world. If, at any point, you feel you’re falling behind, feel free to stop, backtrack, and read again. I’ll wait.

Draygo’s Guilt, Great Britain – If you’re unfortunate enough to be mired in the dankness of American college radio, you’ve no doubt noticed the oppressive stranglehold the new Seattle scene has on indiekids nationwide—everyone wants to be Fleet Foxes and Fleet Foxes want to tucked up in a mountain pass somewhere with their beards and their ostinatos and their echoing voices (oices-ices-ces-es-s-…). So, in a time when everyone seems to be unplugging their amps, it is impossible to overstate the welcome sound of anyone willing to turn theirs up to eleven—and when that band is good at what they do, the results can be ravishing. Draygo’s Guilt are very good at what they do. When I was first introduced to them, the music was described to me as The Doors meets Joy Division. Personally, I would throw The Animals in their as well (and not just because “House” is a version of “House of the Rising Sun” that captures all the energy and passion of the classic recording but with better vocals). The single, “Pulse” is bluesy fuzzpop with a hook to die for and a groove to match. You can head over to MySpace to hear a handful of tracks or download the entire album, Trust Me…, from draygosguilt.com (hint: free music is good).

Lars Ludvig Löfgren, Sweden – From Swedish DIY label Häleri comes the debut album from Lars Ludvig Löfgren, Heterochromia. I will admit that, at first listen, Heterochromia comes off as a pretty decent pop record. It’s not until a few hours (or even days) later that the music really begins to take full effect. But once the high-powered sixties-laden pop has seeped into your brain, there really is no hope of ever separating yourself from it. You can stream the whole album as well as download a couple of the singles for free on Lars’ Bandcamp page. I’ve been listening to it as I’ve been writing this, which has made the writing process rather laborious because all I can think is holy crap, this is brilliant. So, please, excuse my uncharacteristic lack of eloquence and varied vocabulary. A couple of months ago, I was chatting with Geert from The Black Atlantic about this album (at least I think that’s who I was talking to) and he said that he reckons Heterochromia is one of the best albums of 2009. In retrospect, I think I agree with him.

New Canyons, USA – I met Adam Stilson of New Canyons at a Starbucks in Chicago back in October. It was on the same night, in the same Starbucks where I interviewed Emilie Simon (still one of the top 5 highlights of my life, by the way). No, it wasn’t quite so serendipitous as it sounds. Adam was working the show that night, and we got to talking after exchanging a couple of those awkward “don’t I recognise you from somewhere?” looks. After a few minutes of chatting about how sweet Emilie is and why she would ever take the time to talk to a loser like me, he mentioned his band New Canyons, and I am glad he did. New Canyons are another one of those bands deeply ingrained in the 80s revival, owing a great deal to both shoegaze and new wave, with lots of synths and drum machine and a touch of ambient noise. Listening to New Canyons is like 1983 all over again, but in good way, kind of like it would be if MTV decided to show music videos again.

Send for me a Spirit Guide

Hi, guys.  Although I don’t really want to follow Eric’s last post because of its relevance, the world needs more music, and someone’s going to have to bring it, and it might as well be me.  Also, it may be a little less relevant, but Evening Hymns did release Spirit Guides only just a few months ago, and I’m pretty sure the tour just ended.  So, yeah.  My last post on Ohbijou was really just a ploy to eventually talk about Evening Hymns, and eventually I’m going to have to cover Friends in Bellwoods because I’m really loving the layered, orchestral, organic art coming out of … Bellwoods.  Canada never fails me.

So, we here at TIH sort of like to make up lots of standards to decide whether the album you listen to is the greatest album ever.  For instance, I have eleven favorite songs that change every day.  Eric takes it to the next level with Super Desserts,  I think, which is great.  I’m basing my new rule on Spirit Guides, and that is, you know the album you are listening to is the greatest album ever if there is a track where all that is happening is a thunderstorm.  And you probably are thinking, “what?  If I want to listen to a thunderstorm, I can just listen outside.”  Except you can’t, can you?  I can’t, because it’s not raining here, and it’s definitely not thundering, and I don’t live in Lakefield, Ontario, and I don’t know what the rain sounds like there, there where Jonas Bennetta was on November 1st.  Eric can’t listen to one either, because he lives in the state of Freezing, where it snows instead of rains, and where it’s always winter and never Christmas.  Just kidding, spoiler alert, Narnia isn’t real, but it sure snows a lot in Ohio.

Seriously though, the fact that Jonas would put a track with just a thunderstorm reflects something true about the whole album.  Organic is making some kind of comeback, and I haven’t learned how to put organic musicality or organic sound into words yet, but I’m working on it.  Either way, Spirit Guides is all about the organic.  Song titles like “Dead Deer,” “Mountain Song,” “Mazinaw Lake,” “Tumultuous Sea,” and “Cedars” are indicative of lyrics focused on both the peace and chaos that accompany natural elements.  Evening Hymns does a great job hashing out the peace and the chaos, too.  The melancholic harmonies of “Cedars” will put you in a trance, the structure changes of “Tumultuous Sea” reflect just that, and if you like Fleet Foxes’ “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song,” that’s great and everything, but you should probably listen to a less Starbucksy mountain song and it should probably be “Mountain Song.”

The music major that is still hiding inside of me somewhere (I was a music history major for awhile…quit THAT because I thought I could only listen to classical music…I was wrong) loves the orchestral nature of the album, too.  Sure, there’s acoustic guitar and more acoustic tracks (“History Books”), and that’s one of my soft spots anyway, but there’s practically a mini-orchestra, also.    What a great way to capture lots of different emotions–with the voices of different instruments.  Tracks like “Tumultuous Sea” and “Mazinaw Lake” contain long improvisational sections, and whether or not they actually are improvisations, the feel is that the sound is something coming from inside the musicians.  The idea of something beautiful coming straight out of a person and their instrument, without all the fuss that is songwriting…that is freedom.

I have to say that writing a review of Spirit Guides has been pretty difficult for me because while I do love it a lot, it’s very hard to put into words exactly what Evening Hymns has done with it.  What makes an album reach into your soul like this?  That sounds like total cheese, but seriously, I want to know.  These are indeed evening hymns; there’s something very personal, even intimate, about Spirit Guides, and that’s just what you need, I think.

Send for me a Spirit Guide/send for me a ghost/you became my shadow/as I was driving down the coast
lit up the stars in the desert/revealed the bending of the night/I held onto your hand and I/got pulled into the light
and I saw you in flannel/drifting, taking off with a pocket full of cedar/and your hand so soft
and I knew that you were with me/because I heard you turn and say/
that everybody’s gonna live forever/and no one ever dies, anyway

February is like a month of Tuesdays

I have a knack for remembering dates. (It’s a shame, then, that I have no girlfriend to dote on—I would be all over that birthday/miscellaneous trivial anniversary crap. Seriously.) February is a month particularly rich in memorable dates: some crap ones (my birthday), and some considerably more pleasant. Case in point: it was one year ago today that I registered The Indie Handbook with WordPress (the first post came about a week later), but for the sake of accuracy, we’ll say officially that today (4 February 2010), THE INDIE HANDBOOK is ONE YEAR OLD!

[applause]

I suppose this would be a good time to recap and have a look into the future, but first, the numbers:

Posts: 139

Page views: 17,079

Facebook fans: 318

Twitter followers: 291

Interviews: 9

Hipsters alienated: 41*

Friendships ruined: 3**

Friendships gained: 3^3***

Weddings: 1

Quote of the year: “My definition of ‘mainstream’ sure has changed” ~ Kristin

Some of those numbers are staggering. Considering this blog began simply as a means to keep our friends, now scattered all over the country, aware of what we’ve been listening to, the fact that thousands of people from L.A. and Chicago to Malta and Romania have proved to be more interested in our playlists than the friends who used to ask us for recommendations still amazes me. And I am glad that’s the way it is shaping up. Equally surprising to me is the fact that one of my closest friends (who claims to identify strongly with indie music) would first criticise me for liking too much the music I write about only to call me “pompous and dreadful” and refuse to speak to me for writing about the wrong music in the wrong style.

Despite a couple of low points, this past year has been absolutely brilliant. I’ve had the opportunity to meet and conduct in-depth interviews with TWO of my all-time musical heroes, Shara Worden and Emilie Simon. I’ve learned that, while the London and Glasgow scenes are as exciting as ever, the Seattle/Pacific Northwest sound, so revered here in the States, is (for the most part) mind-numbingly derivative and pretentious. Standing in stark contrast, Wales appears to be churning out brilliant acts at an alarming rate that American tastemakers will not be able to ignore much longer and Holland is home to some of the best pop music in the world and two of the most inspired musico-philosophical projects in existence, In A Cabin With and Onder Invloed.

It’s definitely true that we have accomplished far more than I ever expected we would in our first year, but not everything I’d have liked to do. I had hoped to have a brand new site ready for a complete relaunch on our first anniversary, but the fact that I know nothing about web design and have no money to hire someone who does has slowed progress on that front. However, when it happens (and it will happen), I promise, you will love it. You may even find it useful. And, as I’ve alluded to in recent months, T-shirts are coming. I am going to try to keep prices down by printing them myself (yes, I’ve taken on yet another job), so once I’ve learned to do it with consistent quality, we will start selling. Also, you can rest assured that I have received overwhelmingly positive feedback from everyone who has seen the initial design. It really is brilliant.

Other things you can expect in the future:

    • More alt-classical—I am passionate about the work being done by the next generation of “classical” composers, and when you’ve heard it, I think you’ll start to see what I’m on about.
    • More guest bloggers—This business is exhausting. There is so much brilliant stuff I haven’t had time to get to yet: albums from Northern Portrait, The Hi-Life Companion, Venus Hum, Draygo’s Guilt, My Little Pony, etc., etc., etc. So, please send us your contributions. As long as they’re not total crap, we’ll probably post them. (Plus, the more you help us, the better the chance that I may be able to find the time to go on an actual date for once.)
    • Dimbleby & Capper—She. Is. Brilliant. I’ve listened to nothing but her MySpace for three days now.

I’ll stop there. The last year has been great fun. I’ve loved every minute of it, getting to know so many great artists and making new friends along the way. We love to hear from you, so please stay in touch, send us recommendations, and if we happen to be heading to the same show, let us know and stop by to say hello (I need friends). (Which reminds me, I’m headed to the UK in March and I need people to hang out with. My schedule so far: 9 /3, Rose Elinor Dougall, London; 12/3, The School w/ Allo Darlin’, @ The Wee Red Bar, Edinburgh; 13/3, Dimbleby & Capper, @ Proud Camden, London.)

Come, my coach!

Good night, ladies; good night, sweet ladies; good night, good night.

Love,

Eric

Exit

*based on no empirical data whatsoever

**actually true

***ish

I wish I had friends in Bellwoods

There is one word for the way I have been feeling recently: unmotivated.  Can we just get that out of the way?  Great, thanks.  I apologize.  We’ve had snow days for the past three days (don’t ask how much snow we’ve gotten–it’s really shameful.  Hampton Roads is not capable of handling any amount of snow whatsoever) and so now I have the opportunity to sit down and listen and write and not have all my energy zapped by my day job.  The only problem I have now is that the cat is using me as his monkey bars.

Because my cool high school friend Reid gives me music sometimes, I have been listening to Evening Hymns’ Spirit Guides.  I was going to do a write-up on that first, but now I have discovered Ohbijou and I think because they are sort of Evening Hymns’ roots, I will write about them first.  Ohbijou is from Canada, and something cool is that in 2007, they put together a compilation CD for Toronto’s Daily Bread Food Bank called Friends in Bellwoods, which is named after a house where 2 of the members live in Toronto, and they just got their friends together and made an album, I guess.  I like those kinds of things, I think they’re pretty cool.

But I’m not going to talk about Friends in Bellwoods because I’m going to talk about their most recent not-Friends-in-Bellwoods (2009) album, Beacons.  It is one of the albums that reminds me that I should never make “best of” lists because I can never listen to enough music to know if I’m really covering the best.  Who knows what’s out there that hasn’t been heard?  I wish I had heard this before I’d made my best of 2009 list.   Beacons was released by Darling You Inc., under exclusive license to Last Gang Records, and it features some of TIH’s favorite instruments, like glock, harpsichord, violin, electric piano, and mandolin.  The atmosphere of the album is perhaps what makes it so special(duh).  Reminiscent of The New Pornographers or Mates of State, bass and/or piano and/or strings often provide a nice driving bassline as a foundation for more layers upon layers, building into eventual catharsis…my favorite.  “New Years” and “Memoriam” are both perfect examples of this.

Something else I should mention: Casey’s voice = beautiful.  I’ve heard some complaints from mostly really annoying people who I don’t like very much in the first place about how “indie girls all sing the same way.”  Well, if you think “indie girls all sing the same way,” you don’t listen to enough good music.  I understand where the sentiment comes from if you have only ever heard Paramore and Flyleaf and A Fine Frenzy, but if you have heard the White Stripes and Stars and Samantha Crain and Belle & Sebastian and God Help the Girl and Fiona Apple and Jenny Lewis and Ohbijou, you would think before you spoke.  Also, I’m sorry, but what is indie in the first place????  I still don’t know and refuse to concern myself with it.  All this to say, Casey’s voice is uniquely lovely and flexible–haunting, strong, and delicate.  So if you are under the impression that “all indie girls sing the same way,” you have 2 choices.  You may stop reading this blog and continue complaining, or you may listen to Ohbijou and sit in awe at the vocals.

And Casey’s haunting voice matches the lyrics.  This is an album for winter, I think, exemplified on “Black Ice” (the winter brings a heaviness/this weight is a hand/over the things i shouldn’t say/there’s black ice, no sign) and “Cannon March” (mother shoot those cannons off/destroy this wicked place/the winter brings peculiar things/to thaw and leave no trace).  The lyrics are poetry, beautiful even apart from the music and fantastically complemented by it.  All in all, I suppose the album is pretty dark, but there are traces of light and hope that make it anything but depressing.  I don’t know.  I enjoy it.

Some of my favorite tracks are “Wildfires,” “Eloise and the Bones,” and “Make It Gold.”  “Wildfires” is great because it drives, and Casey’s voice is especially well-suited to the long phrasing.  I adore the ups and downs of the phrasing, the syncopation of the melodic line juxtaposed with the constant driving percussive downbeats and bassline.  I don’t know what I love about “Eloise and the Bones”–the lyrics aren’t so much lighter, but the sound is, and I think I really appreciate that.  “Make It Gold” has precious music box feel at the beginning which is done really well–I find that bands can easily screw this up and make it feel gimicky, but Ohbijou doesn’t–instead, it’s tender and a bit nostalgic, until again, the layers build and end in catharsis.  My favorite thing.

If you want to listen, check out www.myspace.com/ohbijou.

Super Desserts: “Banjo Forever”(!)

This is the closest I came to getting everyone in one shot
photo by me (click to see more)

I’m not really sure when it happened, but at some point in the last 10 months, I forgot what it was like to hear Super Desserts for the first time. I’ve been to several of their shows and listened to Barefoot in the Disenchanted Forest countless times in the last year and at no point has my love for them faltered.  But somewhere along the way, the drop-jawed astonishment–that “how is it possible that something like this actually exists?” sentiment–of the initial experience dissipated. And I’d had no idea I’d lost it until Sunday afternoon.

Soaked through from walking ten blocks in persistent rainfall and packed into a small independent record store with 75 other local music enthusiasts, I was treated to an unexpected reawakening. It was the release party for Super Desserts’ newest album Banjo Forever, a collection of soon-to-be classics and a handful of new versions of the songs I fell in love with. If you are familiar with the last album, you will recognize “Funeral” and “Jump Out of the Way” , as well as four others. Everything else here is new. New and wonderful.

“Gotta Lotta Sun” is vintage Super Desserts with prominent string accompaniment, a fun singable refrain, and a whistle chorus outro while “Falling Out of Fashion” (surprisingly) calls to mind a late 1990s Belle & Sebastian sing-along with handclaps and cantus firmus-like chordal accompaniment supporting jangly guitar strumming.

Then there is “Yr Heart” which, in one sense, is unlike many of the other songs on this album. Featuring the distinctive vocals of Eve Searls, it is more reminiscent, I think, of her work with Bird and Flower (just replace the handclaps with a drum machine, and there it is). As it stands, the track has that distinctive updated 60s sound that I (and really anyone with taste) can’t help but love.

For me, though, the highlight of Banjo Forever is “I Only Love You Because You Can Play Guitar”. And it ought to be required listening for every boy who has ever been a freshman in college. (And don’t even pretend you have no idea what I mean. I know you sat beneath a tree outside the girls’ dorm with your guitar, strumming the three chords you knew [G, C, D] and singing a sappy love song, probably John Mayer. We all did it.) With clever lyrics, a charming melody, and vocals of an unforced (almost naive) sweetness, it is equally reminiscent of She & Him and Pink Martini and has been stuck in my head for the last 48 hours.

I’m sure I would have loved Banjo Forever had it just appeared as a .zip file in my inbox one afternoon, but there is an added appreciation that has come along with my first experiencing two thirds of these songs (or all of them, if you include my first Super Desserts show) in a live setting, yet it is an experiential dimension I may have missed out on had it not been for the guy standing next to me Sunday afternoon. (Though I’ve forgotten his name since then,–it was John or Luke or something like that–I think it is safe to just call him Confetti Guy.) From what I gather, Confetti Guy knew some of the band members, but had never actually heard their music. I assume he had come to the show to be supportive of his friends, but it was easy to see (in fact, it would have been difficult not to see) that, with each subsequent song, he was growing increasingly enamored with Super Desserts’ unmistakable brand of folksy indie pop (or, perhaps more appropriately, “twee as folk”). And, in listening to his enthusiastic (an understatement) response to every song, I couldn’t help being transported back to a small bar with a maple tree growing out of the floor and through the ceiling (no, really), to a show I almost didn’t attend. It was then that I remembered what only the stunned look on my face could have conveyed that night in March 2009: that Super Desserts are a revelation not to be missed at any cost.*

If you are in Chicago and you want to experience Super Desserts firsthand, which you do (see above), they will be playing The Hideout on Thursday (28 January) and Cole’s (in the Logan Square area) on Saturday (30 January). In between, they will be somewhere up in Madison, WI. See their Facebook page for details.

*unless you or someone you know is/are a) dying or b) giving birth