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.

Looking Ahead: Bands to Watch in 2011 (part 1)

So that’s it, then. 2010 is over. We’re well into 2011 now, so I suppose it’s time to start looking into the coming months to see what’s headed our way. I mean, 2010 felt like an endless streak of one economic or natural disaster after another and, if you’re Dave Barry, the worst year ever.

But still, it wasn’t all bad, was it?—not for music, at least. With several solid releases from old favourite along with a surge of exciting newcomers, I’d say it was a pretty good year if I’m honest. And if you’ve been anywhere NPR or Time Out New York recently, you may have read something about the exciting rebirth of classical music in the form of “alt-classical” or “indie classical” or whichever ridiculous moniker you prefer. (Never mind the fact that I’ve been going on about this since day one of this blog, it’s nice to see that some ‘real’ publications are catching on.) I mean, honestly, who thought, 12 months ago, that a tiny Brooklyn label like New Amsterdam would be the most celebrated thing in the world of art music?

So, with that said, you shouldn’t consider what follows to be my definitive list of predictions regarding who will be huge by the end of 2011. There’s a chance some of these projects will be released in obscurity and continue to languish there. Some may not make it off the ground in the next calendar year, while others may never see the light of day to begin with. What this is is an assortment of things to look forward to—the things that have me the most excited for—in 2011.

Parlours (Des Moines, Iowa)

I first mentioned Parlours to you way back in the summer of 2009. At the time, Parlours, was just Dana Halferty in her bedroom with a guitar and a bunch of loops and layers. They’ve expanded since then into a full-fledged five-piece and recorded an EP to be released later this month. The music has grown more melodic and the surrealism dialed back a notch or twelve since I first fell in love with ‘Bobby on Repeat’, but I’ve been anticipating a concrete release from Parlours for a year and a half now, and I for one am excited. I don’t know if ‘Bobby’ will be included on the EP (I haven’t received my copy yet), but one can only hope. For now, you can still hear it on MySpace (that is, if you can still tolerate MySpace).

The Black Atlantic (Groningen, Netherlands)

Here’s another band The Indie Handbook has been supporting for a while. God only knows how many bazillions of people have downloaded their last album, Reverence for Fallen Trees. But can you blame them? It’s free and it’s gorgeous. What more do you need? More recently, however, the band have been back in the studio working on a new album. Though I don’t know of any firm release date yet, I have it on good authority that singer Geert van der Velde has been listening to a fair amount of Arvo Pärt and medieval lute music lately, which is always promising. Then there’s the simple fact that these guys tour relentlessly. Having made at least three separate trips to the US in 2010, including appearances at SXSW and CMJ, the band long ago confirmed their return to SXSW in March followed by several dates in China later in the spring.

The Vaccines (London, UK)

They’ve generated so much buzz in recent months, that it almost feels like cheating to list The Vaccines here (not bad for a band that’s been together for just about a year). My own experience with the band is limited to the performance of a couple of songs on the Bonfire Night edition Jools Holland a couple of months back. But I was thoroughly impressed by their uptempo lo-fi guitar pop and—well—any band who can dethrone enfants terribles Kings of Leon (who performed on the same show) gets my vote any day.

Cults (NYC)

Just like The Vaccines, perhaps even more so, Cults are a band that have hotly tipped in the past year. For several months, the tracks from their debut 7” were available on Bandcamp as a free download, but, having recently signed with a major label that is, of course, no longer the case. The signing, at least in theory, bodes well for Cults who, if they are able to retain some semblance of creative control, could do some wonderful things with some decent label backing. And if they don’t, well, there’s still that first 7” floating around out there. I suggest you grab one. Here’s to 60s-drenched lo-fi melodic homophony.

The Indie Handbook: best of 2009

The best according to Kristin:

10. Our Temperance Movement, Cats on Fire (Matinee)
9. A Balloon Called Moaning, The Joy Formidable (self-released)
8. The Yearling, Piney Gir (Hotel)
7. The Life of the World to Come, The Mountain Goats (4AD)
6. Where the Wild Things Are [soundtrack], Karen O. and the Kids (Interscope)
5. Tarpits and Canyonlands, Bombadil (Ramseur Records)
4. God Help the Girl, God Help the Girl (Rough Trade / Matador)
3. Aim and Ignite, fun. (Nettwerk)
2. My Maudlin Career, Camera Obscura (4AD)
1. Know Better Learn Faster, Thao w/ the Get Down Stay Down (Kill Rock Stars)

Honorable mentions: A Very Cherry Christmas 5, various artists (Cherryade); Reverence for Fallen Trees, The Black Atlantic (In a Cabin With / Beep! Beep! Back up the Truck)

The best according to Eric:

10. Rockwell, Anni Rossi (4AD) – If you caught Camera Obscura on their US tour this summer, you now have a better idea just what one girl and her viola are capable of, but I saw Anni twice this year, and I still can’t believe it.

9. Actor, St. Vincent (4AD) – Though my review of this album for a certain e-zine was “improved” by some hack of an editor who considered my avoidance of clichés downright unpalatable, Annie Clark remains one of the great musical geniuses at work these days.

8. The Big Machine, Emilie Simon (Barclay/Universal) – It’s a departure from her last (and my favorite) album, Végétal, but this, the first of what you might call Emilie’s “American” recordings, proves that a creative powerhouse starting anew is still better than any number of pop idols doing what they do best. [interview]

7. Uam, Julie Fowlis (Machair/Shoeshine/Cadiz) – I hesitated to include this since none of the songs on this album were even written in this century, but few (if any) have done more to make one of the world’s great musical traditions relevant again than Ms. Fowlis. That combined with impeccable musicianship and a killer set of tunes spanning several centuries are enough to obliterate my reticence.

6. Pays Sauvage, Emily Loizeau (Polydor) – On her sophomore release, Emily Loizeau copes with, among other things, the loss of her father. In the process, she will tear your heart to shreds – and you will never again be more happy to be heartbroken. If you had told me a year ago that a French woman would prove this year to have a better grasp of American roots music and slave songs than almost anyone I’ve heard in recent memory, I’d have written you off as a complete nutjob (no offense).

5. My Maudlin Career, Camera Obscura (4AD) – Apparently, it’s been a good year for 4AD. “French Navy” is probably the catchiest song by a band I like that your average Starbucks customer may have actually heard this year. Still, I think “Honey in the Sun” is my favorite from the second Scottish act on this list.

4. Bitte Orca, Dirty Projectors (Domino) – The only album on this list that I do not actually own and I am ashamed. Even worse, I missed their Columbus show this year because I suck. I streamed this about 3,487 times when it was streaming on the NPR website. Holy crap, it’s brilliant.

3. Lungs, Florence + the Machine (Universal Republic/Island) – You Brits have been hearing about Florence Welch for ages now, but I guess Paste hasn’t given the American indie subculture permission to trade in their Grizzly Bear CDs for one of the most monumental voices of the decade yet, not to mention the super sexy percussion. But her time will come, kids. Now is your chance to get in on the ground floor. I suspect that, if I’d had more than two months with this album before writing this, Florence + the Machine would be finishing even higher on this list.

2. A Balloon Called Moaning/First You Have to Get Mad, The Joy Formidable (self-released) – If you have not heard of The Joy Formidable by now, you a) live outside of the UK and/or b) do not read this blog enough. Technically, these are two albums, one studio and one live and there is a lot of overlap between them. But together, they prove two things conclusively: The Joy Formidable are the best unsigned band in the world (yes, I said it); and they are the band to watch in 2010. If you don’t already own these albums, ask yourself why and the go out and buy them. Then, when they play their three shows in NYC with Passion Pit in January and all those cool Brooklyn kids think they’ve discovered something groundbreaking, you can (gently) remind them that you and some unenlightened hick from the Midwest got there a year before them.

1. The Love Language, The Love Language (Bladen County) – This album took 150% more turns in my car stereo than any other album released in 2009. That fact alone made my album of the year decision an easy one. (Not a bad accomplishment for one guy sitting alone in his bedroom.) Then there is the fact that the live incarnation of The Love Language, which is considerably larger, put on what is, at the very least, the second best show I saw this year (Los Campesinos are pretty phenomenal in their own right). I am speechless just thinking about it, so go back and read what I wrote after that show, if you’re interested. And, Stuart McLamb, if you’re reading this, let me thank you from the bottom of my heart for this record. I hope I won’t have to wait too long for a second one.

Honorable Mentions: Welcome to the Walk Alone, The Rumble Strips (Island); God Help the Girl, God Help the Girl (Rough Trade/Matador)

Reverence for Fallen Trees

The best part about Dutch Week, for me anyway, was the discovery of the In A Cabin With International Recording Project, and I now anxiously await every new album. I vow to become a part of it catching on in the States. You’ve already heard me go on and on about how wonderful the project is; now I’ll go on and on about the latest–IN A CABIN WITH The Black Atlantic!

The Black Atlantic is Geert van der Velde, Marcel Wolthof, and Kim Janssen of the Netherlands with Brooklyn-based Leo Maymind (Spanish Prisoners) and Peter Silberman (The Antlers). While recording Reverence for Fallen Trees, our musician friends lived in a cozy little cabin in the Adirondacks, surrounded by snow and mountains and isolated beauty, a landscape reflected flawlessly in the ebb and flow of the album.

Much of the album is quite stark and minimalistic, with subtly changing piano lines or guitar chords, unique percussive sounds, and soft background vocals, layered with introspective, melancholic lyrics.  And while I would say that it is all lovely and ethereal, there is still movement, picking up with “Old Dim Light” or “Dandelion,” and ‘slowing’ (not so much in tempo as in feel) with “Walked-on Wood” or “Reverence for Fallen Trees.”  The end result is an album with incredible flow, no choppy inconsistencies that one might expect to hear from a musicians who don’t all normally play together, who have spent only a week writing and recording.  The listening experience is cathartic, akin to that of Sigur Ros or Phillip Glass, and the listener would be better to hear the album as a whole, rather than pulling only a few songs.

What I really love about In A Cabin With is the ability to pick up on the recording environment and community through the sound and atmosphere of the music.  In Reverence for Fallen Trees and perhaps especially (in my opinion) in the songs “Fragile Meadow,” “Walked-on Wood,” and naturally “Reverence for Fallen Trees,” you can feel the warmth of the cozy cabin, and you can feel the quiet of the snow outside.  These artists have done an incredible work in reflecting their surroundings in their musical experience.

You know what else is great?  The album is free for downloading on the In A Cabin With site.  Check it out!!

You can check out this video that I can’t embed too 🙂 http://www.inacabinwith.com/blog/theblackatlantic/Movie.html