Pen Pals 1: Appendix A – The Dutch

I don’t know how many of you were listening to Amazing Radio on Sunday afternoon. If you were, and you happened to catch the second half of Bethan Elfyn’s show, you may have also noticed the part where Beth took a break and some weird guy started talking about Dutch indie music. Well, I was that weird guy. In case you missed it and would like to hear it for yourself, you can listen again on the Bethan Elfyn Show page on amazingradio.co.uk (I start talking just before the 96 minute mark).

On the show, I covered some Dutch indie bands and one of my favorite Dutch labels. I only had time to talk about two bands, but if any of you remember our Dutch Week we had here a few years ago, you probably also remember that there are far more than two good Dutch bands. So, I promised I would write a post to highlight some of the other artists who, sadly, had to be left out of the final broadcast.

The first track I played was “Destroyers of Worlds” by The Sugarettes. Some of you may remember The Sugarettes from Dutch Week, at the time, they were pushing their first LP on Subroutine Records call Love and Other Perversities (a good album, which I still own, and one you should pick up). Earlier this year (March, I believe) The Sugarettes released a new LP, Destroyers of Worlds, which I’ve been listening to constantly for a couple of months now. If I were to pass judgment on it (which I will), I would say it’s a more mature work than Other Perversities was. They’ve really got the girl-fronted nerd rock thing down, and it’s working out nicely for them—kind of like if The Coathangers formed a Blondie tribute band. And if this sort of nerdy indie rock is your thing, you’ll definitely want to check out the various other projects The Sugarettes are involved with. Joep van Son has a few of them. We covered the boy-girl indie rock of The Very Sexuals a few years ago, but Joep is also a member of Nikoo a noise pop ensemble. He has also recently launched Waste No Fun, a collaborative indie pop project with Sydney-based illustrator Bas van Genugten, releasing a free lo-fi single every six weeks, which also offers limited edition prints of the artwork. The Sugarettes’ lead singer Mariska Louman also has a shoegaze-inspired band of her own called Iskaa and the Red Cars, who just recently released their first EP.

And while we’re on the subject of Subroutine Records, they have recently released the first LP from noise rockers Space Siren. When I first heard Space Siren a couple of years ago, they had only ever released a seven inch, and that several years before I heard them. I just assumed that they had disbanded. I never expected to see an LP from them, nor did I expect it to be so well-worth the wait. The band’s debut LP, Mr Wagner, Please Give Us A Call, is on the noisier side of the Subroutine spectrum, certainly more so than The Sugarettes, but it’s far from being noise for the sake of noise. There is almost a sort of shimmering violence with a glamorous tinge about the ten tracks that make up Mr. Wagner, which is apparent in the video for the single “Oh My God, Someone Killed Kelly”, for instance. It’s sort of a shoegaze ethos with a post-riot grrrl attitude (think My Bloody Valentine covers “I Think I’m Paranoid” by Garbage).

Of course, it’s an unfortunate reality of the guest appearance business that you never have as much time as you want (or even need), especially if you’re as prone to enthusiasm as I am. (Seriously, I’ve written 600 words so far, and only really talked about two bands.) And one of the most heartbreaking cuts I had to make was an entire label, namely Snowstar Records. For those who prefer the softer side of DIY, Snowstar is a great place to look (though not always—you’ll also find things like the mid-’90s inspired indie rock of Lost Bear). We covered the lo-fi electronic folk of The Secret Love Parade a couple of years ago. Since then, in February, the girls released their second LP on Snowstar, Mary Looking Ready, which builds promisingly on their previous work, achieving a fuller and more singular sound than ever before while still maintaining the relaxed, almost conversational feel of their self-titled debut LP.

Also on Snowstar, you’ll find the frighteningly prolific and equally talented I Am Oak, who seems to have a new single or album out every time I check the label’s Bandcamp page. Usually, turning out music at such a pace would send up red flags all over the place, but there’s something about I Am Oak that keeps me coming back for more. Maybe it’s the melodies and sparse textures. Or it could be the harmonies and haunting vocals. Very rarely do you see someone do so much with so little. Here is a the first I Am Oak track I ever heard, “Gold and Porcelain”, which you can find on this free Snowstar compilation:

Which brings us to Kim Janssen of The Black Atlantic, whose most recent solo record, a beautiful folk concept album called Ancient Crime, which draws on the character and ethos of the northwest of England, was released on Snowstar Records in March of this year. And, speaking of The Black Atlantic, I have to come clean and admit that they released a new EP on Beep! Beep! Records early this year which I have failed to review here or even make sufficient public mention of. Which should not, in any way, be considered a reflection of the EP itself, which is, in fact, absolutely gorgeous. If you were listening to the Bethan Elfyn Show when we played the title track “Darkling, I Listen”, you have, most likely, already figured this out. If you missed it, head over to amazingtunes.com or to the band’s website. You can listen to the whole thing there and it’s well worth your undivided attention. The five tracks on Darkling, I Listen fit together so seamlessly, they function best as a single piece of music, featuring all of the lush harmonies that were the hallmark of the band’s Reverence For Fallen Trees, Geert and company also make fine use of the sort dramatic, subito dynamic changes that characterize the longer form choral works of Arvo Pärt, for instance, and which jar the listener to beautiful and hypnotic effect.

I should probably start wrapping this up. Congratulations if you’ve managed to read this far. You actually have an attention span, which is an increasingly rare thing. (You’re practically a collector’s item!). There’s plenty more to cover, but I’ve already kept you too long. If you’re curious, go back and read some of those old Dutch Week posts. There are a whole lot of other tips and leads in there that I didn’t even bother to rehash in this post (as much as I would have liked to). But as it stands, I’ve already given you about a day’s-worth of music to check out, and that’s enough for one night.

Who is Arcade Fire? (or: Since when did talent merit a Grammy?)

I am interrupting a series of posts I’ve been writing about last week’s Dead White Guys twitter debate because there is only one thing on my mind at the moment. If you’re anything like me, you don’t hold the Grammys in very high regard and haven’t for some time now. More often than not, the awarding of the marquee prizes like Album of the Year have about as much to do with talent and accomplishment as the votes you were forced to cast for your high school’s homecoming court. But if the wave of vitriolic vexation that washed over Twitter in the 24 hours following the awarding of Album of the Year to the Arcade Fire for The Suburbs is any indication, the newest generation of Grammy voters may indeed be experiencing a renewed interest in actual music.

There is, of course, a great deal of basking to be done in the glow of the Arcade Fire (likewise in the award for Best New Artist). We had a baffled MTV trying to rationalise Gaga’s defeat, pinning the blame on the paranoid throngs of conservative musicians frightened by her flamboyant espousal of the ‘queer agenda’. Or the shear joy of watching Esperanza Spalding swiftly dash the dreams of countless beleaguered Beliebers. Then there’s this little gem (whoisarcadefire.tumblr.com), which popped up in the wee hours of Monday morning. But, perhaps more important than the all-too-rare public recognition of a band who spend more time practicing than preening or posturing are the symbolic victories which extend far beyond the band members alone.

Because, if you think about it, it’s a victory for all of us, really—for those of us whose interaction with the world reaches beyond the comings and goings of a Madonna knock-off in a rancid meat dress or a Canadian teenager who really ought to be in school. It’s an important victory for we who still clear space for our turntables and call songs by their track numbers because we still have some concept of continuity: of beginning, middle, and end. And it’s a message to the labels—and one we’ve been trying to send for ages now—that music isn’t (and never should be) about churning out hit after hit, but about nurturing artists and fostering creativity and not as dictated by sales figures and focus groups but by high concept and visceral intuition.

And maybe that’s what we’re seeing here. Maybe the Talent are finally sending a message to the parasites who bleed them dry: that while the hit factory model may make them millions, it will never make them respectable. Will that change the behaviour of the Geffens, Bransons, and Davises of this world? Not likely. But something else we learned last night: no one needs major labels anymore. A lot of talent and even more passion can accomplish everything and more than a bottomless bank account ever could. We can only hope that such high-profile recognition of an independent entity will boost the morale of the innumerable others who choose to go it alone. Could we finally be witnessing ‘the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism‘?

P.S. I would be remiss if I did not also take this opportunity to congratulate my former colleagues from the Chicago Symphony as well as my friends at Naxos of America who absolutely crushed in the classical categories Sunday night.

P.P.S. If you liked this, here is another article from Vancouver about the importance of last night’s award.

up! from below!

Ok, you all know by now, I hope, that I live with my musical head stuck in the sand, and I’ve totally lost any grasp I used to have on what “mainstream” means, and I feel that I must use this disclaimer in front of or behind every post I ever make, but I’m really insecure about how Eric finds all the cool new bands and I find all the bands that have been around for years and get way post-excited about them.

I did ask him last night, Eric, are Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros too hipster for us to cover? What do you think? And he asked, Do you think they’d have a drink with me? and I’m not Alex or Jade or any of their company so I don’t know for sure, but I would imagine they’d have a drink with us (by the way, I’ll be in Richmond in a couple weeks if you DO want to get a drink) and even really like us. So, that’s how we’re gauging whether music is too hipster to cover. If you’d have a drink with us, we’re good.

That being said, I ask Reid Kerley for his forgiveness and Eric for his patience and here is my new obsession: Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. Yes, friends, as of July 7th, the album Up From Below has been around and available for exactly one year, and yes, I am just now listening (and obsessing).

This wild ensemble, led by Alex Ebert, has pieced together Up From Below in a way similar to the way I formulate a mix–the tempos, the dynamic, the feel–they all flow together in one big musical happening; however, I tend to love the tempo, dynamic, and feel of the first 6 tracks the best of all. And “Om Nashi Me.” Eh, maybe it’s not really that formulaic…but anyway, the album carries a pervasive feeling of freedom and community. With so many band members, does that surprise you? At any given point in the album, an entire chorus seems to be making some kind of noise, whether singing or banging percussive instruments or adding a layer of countermelody. Unrefined vocals have become something beautiful and captivating through Alex and Jade, and their love song “Home” is the most passionate, honest, and freeing anthem for love that I’ve ever heard. Another of my favorites, “Jade,” precedes it perfectly.

Alex’s mysterious, unrefined voice–complete with vibrato, tonation bends, and tons of character–fascinate me. I hear so many influences in both his voice and his music that I can hardly begin to piece them all together. Perhaps vocally, he is what a David Bowie-Rufus Wainwright-Freddie Mercury lovechild would be; musically, I’m reminded of classic rock along the lines of the Doobie Brothers or the Who. The mariachi feel on “Jade” channels a Beatles-esque lightness. Even the lyrics on “Come In Please” make me think of Dylan’s “Tombstone Blues,” which I do admit is a bit more of a stretch. I hope none of you are turned off by this, partly because I adore classic rock, but mostly because the likenesses are subtle and ES & the MZ’s have created an undeniably unique sound.

I am excited to see these guys in Richmond in a few weeks because I’ve heard so many wonderful things about their live shows. If their album is this great, I have no doubts about their live show. There is something liberating and wild in their music that I love, and I can’t wait to see it manifest!

P.S. If you are looking for a flute player, I’ll be in your band. kthanksedwardsharpe&themagneticzerosbye.

Here is my pathetic attempt to embed:

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros “Home” from Edward Sharpe on Vimeo.

Is that how you spell “herpetology”?

By now, you know that I can be somewhat excitable, and when I get excited, I tend to bombard you with the same information ad nauseum (how many times have I linked to my own post about The School?). And when I get really excited, I become preoccupied and forget to do important things, like a #faibw recap. Get over it. This is better. [Begin tale of serendipitous googling]

On Monday, I was doing some research for my Splashdown entry (did you all download your free albums, albums plural?!), trying to figure out if Melissa Kaplan, the former lead singer of Splashdown, was still performing around L.A. as Universal Hall Pass. Google lied–sort of. This was the other Melissa Kaplan (not Melissa Kaplan the world-famous herpetologist and author of Iguanas for Dummies, heretofore referred to as MK3). But its ok, because she likes Splashdown and Universal Hall Pass and she capitalizes and punctuates her emails. Also, she is in a band.

The band is The Hard to Get. They are from L.A. and I have listened to their new EP, Looking Good at least 15 times since Tuesday. Looking Good, starts off strong with the title track and Melissa singing “Mama didn’t live like me / She was married by 23 / She didn’t rock a late night scene, / didn’t follow her midnight dreams” over acoustic guitar arpeggios and Tim Lee’s accordion, all of which is reduced to bass and handclaps by the third verse before mounting to the requisite tutti finale.

“Dance Serene”, the fourth of the five tracks which comprise Looking Good is notable as an admirable invocation of the Brazilian sound (impressive since, as most of you probably know, Los Angeles is not in Brazil). Seriously, folks, this track could very well have appeared on a Cibelle or CéU record. The final track, “She Is a Jet”, is a strong closer. With a groove worthy of nosnow/noalps and momentum to match, this is a straight-up indie rock tune, and a good one.

On such a short set (about 20 minutes) with so many bright spots, it is difficult to choose a standout track, but I have done so anyway, and I’m going to go against the grain here. While in many ways, “Dance Serene” is the landmark track of Looking Good, it is the third song, “Good at That”, which has stuck with me from the moment of the first listen. Maybe it’s the sickeningly infectios “do do do” refrain (I’m singing it right now, can’t you hear?) or the call and response style chorus. Or it could be the lyrics, which are terribly clever (“Hey I don’t know how / I got caught in your labyrinth of mist and cloud. / From France to the Hague / the only thing that’s clear is that our love is vague. / But the last time I tried to share what I could see / I had to give my heart a hysterectomy. / I’m really good at faking out. / What a tease.”). I can’t really be sure, but I do know that this is clear cut, good songwriting and I like it. And it ends on a major seventh (which is sexier than Piney Gir‘s accordion)!

I haven’t mentioned the second track, “The Verge”. It’s good, too, but I didn’t want to sound like I was gushing or anything and lose 12,000 indie points for such an uncouth departure from my typically cool and disaffected writing style. (God forbid my blog be too blog-like!) The Hard to Get are in the process of finalizing their summer tour, and we will try to have those dates for you when we can. For now, you can buy Looking Good from thehardtoget.com, listen to several of the tracks on MySpace, become their fan on (the far superior) Facebook, and watch the video for “Shake” below.

Big things for TIH this week, including #faibw

The last 48 hours have been big for us. There’s the Facebook page. Show us how much you love us and become our fan and tell your friends to do the same (we have a target we are trying to reach, but I am not telling you what it is). There is also a potentially big anouncement (for me, anyway), but I am not telling you about that yet until it’s official, either. And then there’s Follow an Indie Band Wednesday, which I will tell you about, because it’s Wednesday (or at least it was when I started writing this).

Bitter Things – Yes, it’s true, we have told you about Bitter Things before and technically, I am the one who nominated them for #faibw on Twitter today, but this is a day to give them your attention. Why? Because they have posted four new tracks to their MySpace and I love these songs. It’s the same Bitter Things, but with a slightly more garage-y sound and a bluesy guitar quality (some overdrive/compression). And if you pinch your left earlobe and squint, you can hear a bit of the White Stripes, especially on “Run Rabbit Run”, but “The God of Lovers & Drunks” is my favourite. Well done, Bitter Things. Now, when can we expect an LP from you?

Swimming in Speakers – It took me about 30 seconds to get into this, but once I did, I was hooked. At first glance, “In Knowing”, the lead track on the band’s MySpace, sounds like it is going to grow into some straightforward(?) electro-twee, but the entrance of Meadow Eliz’s vocals prove that there is a lot more to this New York quartet. Comparisons to CocoRosie are easily (and accurately) drawn. For those of you who think CocoRosie is too mainstream, you will be glad to know that “In Knowing” bears a strikingly pleasant resemblance to the atmosphere of “Dragonfly” by Universal Hall Pass.

The Foxes – Straight up indie rock, which admittedly, like this band, is not unheard of. But they sound well polished and, yes, I like that too. Allow me to explain myself. Here are some lyrics from “Trauma Town”: “I don’t want to have to explain myself to idiots to flatter their bravado”. How can you not love that? That’s how I felt most of the day Tuesday. They’ve got a new single out called “Bill Hicks”, presumably named for the late comedian. You can stream both tracks, as well as others, on their homepage and Facebook. You can watch the video for “Trauma Town” below.

Ah, Sweet Bitter Things

Why we at The Indie Handbook are –oh god and I thought I would never say it– big fans of Twitter:|

1) Eric can tweet at people (dirty!)
2) We can discover fantastic music that we may not run into otherwise

Bitter Things is one example. So, thank you, Bitter Things, even though you may have started following us only because we had the word “indie” in our name (although you really don’t seem like the type) or because we happen to be following some of the same record labels. I’d like to say that we officially love your music.

I only spent a few months in London, but to me, Bitter Things has a quintessential London sound, dark and moving and full of convincing guitar riffs.   In fact, although “Let Me Down Slow” is over 4 minutes long, it’s my favorite of the songs on their myspace page.  They clearly know what they’re doing– longer than 4 minutes and you’re just being greedy, so usually I’ll officially peace out, but Bitter Things has me hooked.  Nick Gledhill has a voice full of character (check out “You’re So 2oth Century”), reminiscent of David Bowie on Ziggy Stardust, Mott the Hoople’s Ian Hunter, or the Kinks’ Ray Davies.  Not that their sound is completely British 70’s rock, but who doesn’t love a little Bowie twist?

Speaking of influences, the “influences” section of Bitter Things’ myspace bears mentioning.  Nick begins talking about the music he’s been listening to lately, then mentions movies he’s seen and books he’s been reading, and then discusses the National Portrait Gallery and the paintings he has been enjoying and the people he has been watching, and finally he concludes (as every philosophical, self-aware, true lover of life eventually does) that “[the girls in the art museum] are also an exhibit and so are you and so is everyone who passes through the place to behold and be beheld and this is a very strange and interesting place to be.”  Except obviously he explains it all in much more length and with much more eloquent detail than I just did, so I’m suggesting/demanding that you go to their myspace page immediately, listen to their music, read their “influences” section, and cry because unless you are in the U.K., you probably won’t catch a show anytime soon.  Or maybe you will.

www.myspace.com/bitterthingsmyspace

P.S. Eric would like to add that the Bohemian girls are his favourite part of the V&A, too, and the Tate Modern, for that matter.

Don’t get dramatic, this ain’t the movies

The mark of a great album is that your favorite song will change every week or two.  Real life example: David Bowie’s Hunky Dory.  Can you really pick a favorite?  First it will be “Changes” because even though it’s way overrated and you want to be cool, it will be the first Bowie song you ever hear and will suck you in immediately; then it will be “Life On Mars,” then “Queen Bitch,” then eventually you’ll wrap back around to “Oh! You Pretty Things” until you finish off with “Bewlay Brothers” before you realize that “Bombers” is really freaking awesome…

But I’m not here to talk about Bowie, as much as I love him and his fancy outfits.  I’m here to talk about Dear and the Headlights’ sophomore album, Drunk Like Bible Times, which was released back in September on the indie record label Equal Vision.  Dear and the Headlights are living proof that you don’t have to be “indie” to be indie.  They have no silly instruments, no incredible bios, and no skinny androgynous-looking boys or girls.  They may or may not have written their Wikipedia page themselves, and whether or not anything on the page is true doesn’t really matter because you won’t find any other information about them on their website or their myspace.  Not to mention that their “story” as told by whoever actually did write about them on Wikipedia is maybe the most boring thing I have ever read next to the back of a shampoo bottle.

However, once you’ve listened to this album for about a month, you’ll realize your favorite song has changed at least four or five times because not only is there not a bad song on this album, every track is a gem.  Musically, these guys are fantastic.  The chord progressions are interesting (although unlike Eric, I’ll probably never be able to tell you what they are) and the form changes enough to keep my ADD self from skipping any tracks.  They have good movement over the entire album as well, hooking you with the catchy first track, “I’m Not Crying, You’re Not Crying, Are You?,” leaving you trying to catch up with “Talk About,” and then bringing you back down to peace with “Parallel Lines.”  “I Know” may be the most unexpected track (and the best drinking song), with the drums sounding like a tap dancer and a great little clapping/yelling session at the end.  What really pulls together the band’s raw style, though, is Ian Metzger’s voice.  First he’s singing, then it gets a little too intense and he’s gotta yell for a second, then he’s cool and he’s just gonna sing again.  He’s not Bright Eyes or Bob Dylan, talking through everything, and he’s not freaking Rufus Wainwright, lovely and classically trained.  He’s passionate, vulnerable, and raw, and the rest of the band is right there ready to join him.

While musically, Dear and the Headlights knows what they’re doing and they do it well, they are incredibly lyrically focused.  They are angst without emo and wit without whining, which isn’t surprising; after all, you don’t have to look much further than the name of the band or the name of the album to appreciate their cleverness.  “Talk About” is one huge string of metaphors (“I’m a passed out priest in an AA meeting/and they’re checking my pulse trying to make a decision/I’ve got those rolled back eyes but nothing’s clouding my vision”)-you’ll be speechless by the end of it, after which you will proceed to listen to it as many times as it takes to learn all the words.  The lyrics on “If Not For My Glasses” might err on the side of emo if not for their sheer brilliance (“I love your face, the way it moves, your murky mouth, your eyelid brooms/and I’m feeling that cobweb apprehension…You say I’m your white cast kid, I was born for your cares/ why you gotta label me now?”) but the lack of jadedness on “Parallel Lines” and “Flowers for My Brain” (“We’re swaying in subconscious subways so insane/but your thoughts still bring flowers for my brain/ and I still pull my hands past your ribcage/ hoping my movements might find their place at your side”) proves that they have hope despite their more-than-occasional cynicism.

I could really go on and on about the lyrics on this album, but I’d rather you check them out yourselves.  Any decent cynical idealist will appreciate the wit and the intensity.  And bonus!  You’ll have a new favorite song every week!  As for a sneak preview, you can check out some of their concert videos on myspace, but good luck trying to find any music videos from this album.  My recommendation: grab some beer and some friends and get Drunk Like Bible Times!  (But please drink responsibly.  This is a message from The Indie Handbook.)

We leave at dawn, so you’d better pack your suitcase

Fair warning: what follows flies in the face of indie logic–what is left of it, anyway. If this is going to be a problem for you, then I suggest you squeeze yourself into your skinny jeans, put on a Death Cab record, and pretend someone cares what you think. Those of us who like music will carry on without you.

A true indie kid has a moral obliation to despise any artist who has launched a career via The X Factor or American Idol or some other program of that ilk. (I still love you, Kelly. Will you Marry Me?) Envy & Other Sins (MySpace) is one of those bands. They gained notoriety through Channel 4’s Mobile Act Unsigned in the waning months of 2007, booted from the competition early on before being voted back on as a wild card by a dedicated fan base (myself included). Their debut, We Leave At Dawn, was released a scant three months later. Now, nearly a year out, it remains in heavy rotation on my playlist and spends more time in the passenger seat of my car than anyone else.

Put simply, this is a brilliant piece of work. The opening tracks, “Morning Sickness” and “Almost Certainly Elsewhere” flow seemlessly one into the other. “Highness“, the first and only track I heard before the release of this album had me hooked from the first chorus. “Step Across” and “Man Bites God” are pure pop genius, culminating in a passage that bears a remarkable resemblance to Maroon 5 (minus the teeny bopper fan base and Wal-Mart shelf space, and therefore, you know, better). The brooding “Don’t Start Fires” and oddly anthemic closer “Shipwrecked” show the band at its most dramatic and, arguably, best. That is not to take anything away from the other three tracks (“Martyr“, “The Company We Keep”, and “Talk To Strangers”) that make up the latter half of We Leave At Dawn. In fact, “The Company We Keep” is one of the highlights of the album for me.

This album is replete with some of the most literate and engaging songwriting I have heard in some time yet never grows predictable or pretentious. The melodies are memorable and never dull, aided by modal shifts that would make Schubert jealous and metric displacement that is unsettling, disorienting, and wholly brilliant. The liner notes, too, are done in a masterfully executed neo-deco style. A work of art in their own right, rather than distract the listener, they perfectly complement and enhance the Gatsbian experience that is We Leave At Dawn.

I have listened to We Leave At Dawn five times today. I am about to press the repeat button again. For my money, this is the best album of 2008, hands down.