a grave with no name – “wedding dress”

a grave with no name
photo courtesy of the artist

alexander shields makes incredibly pensive and methodical music as a grave with no name, the kind of output that would feel right at home on a label like forged artifacts.  appropriately, the minneapolis imprint will be releasing shields’ newest album, wooden mask, on august 12th.  tethered to today’s announcement is the unveiling of “wedding dress,” a slow-burning lead single hinging on an eerie yet positively bucolic aesthetic that, at times, tempts shields’ lead vocal back into the forest’s underbrush, to be forever consumed by an expanse of ominous guitar motifs.  take a listen to the track below.

the antlers – burst apart

– featured image courtesy of the artist – 

*this column has long lay dormant, and is truthfully being resurrected primarily to celebrate the fifth anniversary of one of the most important albums to this site and its existence.  maybe subsequent additions will be made, and maybe not; that’s the beauty of complete autonomy.

Peter silberman’s music under the moniker of the antlers first appeared in 2006.  his sparse confessionals, punctuated by a hushed falsetto developed and honed partially out of necessity, populated early efforts like the eerie in the attic of the universe; by 2009, silberman had added multi-instrumentalist darby cicci and drummer michael lerner and had offered up hospice, an undeniable pillar of twenty-first century indie rock and one of the most devastating concept albums ever recorded.

throughout the record, silberman alters between tender reassurances whispered at a metaphorical terminal patient’s bedside and heart-wrenching frustrations vented at full volume out in the hallway, a dichotomy compounded by percussion crescendos and thick walls of keyboard textures.  hospice is an emotionally exhausting album, and following up a body of work with that critical of a magnitude is a tall order.

turn the calendar ahead two years and enter burst apart.  the antlers’ second full-length as a full band is sonically the furthest thing possible from a sequel to hospice; the trio goes spelunking in the cavernous depths of spooky, spacious tracks like “parentheses” and “rolled together,” while silberman’s guitar work is decidedly more minimal, more inclined to add texture with cyclical motifs and arpeggios rather than to function as the driving force behind most songs.

perhaps due to their initial involvement in the album’s creation, cicci and lerner feel less supplemental on burst apart.  the former’s trumpet chops are consistently underrated but integral to the trio’s timbral construct, not to mention his celestial synth pads, while the latter’s drum kit is a forceful presence on all tracks, save penultimate ballad “corsicana.”  consequentially, the album retains a fully collaborative air, with the intense lyrical depth and cohesion of hospice funneled into an incredibly tight ensemble interplay that could be (and often was) extended effortlessly in a live setting.

on record, burst apart tends to steer clear of the post-rock grandeur that makes its predecessor feel so gargantuan.  inner demons are often exorcised with the assistance of a murky, hypnotic pulse and their significance is sussed out under the guise of haunting chamber pop; no track on burst apart exceeds the six-minute mark, and most conform to radio-play length.

this more streamlined approach also found silberman largely abandoning his penchant for detailed narrative.  such instances were doled out judiciously and to great effect (see his tear-jerking return to metaphor on closing number “putting the dog to sleep”), but cryptic minimalism often reigns supreme, from the aforementioned “parentheses” to the stoned, slow-burning “rolled together” to “hounds,” the most arresting, flat-out beautiful five minutes of burst apart.

five years on, burst apart endures.  each of its ten tracks is commendable in its own right; if nothing else, they’re stellar examples of the trio’s ability to write pristine, focused pop songs within the relative confines of their sonic climate.  new listens constantly yield new discoveries, from the presence of some truly interesting, murky bass lines to the impressive mandolin work that silberman routinely slides into unassuming tracks.

burst apart is a clear touchstone for the antlers’ subsequent output; the watery organ in “putting the dog to sleep” foreshadows the aqueous and astounding 2012 ep, undersea, while the overall orchestration hints at the majesty that would fully bloom on 2014’s familiars.  much like hospice, this is an album best-suited for nocturnal consumption, but unlike its predecessor, burst apart doesn’t necessarily demand isolation.

peter silberman’s lyrics are arguably paramount to the antlers’ canon; on burst apart, his bandmates match that poignancy with some truly mesmerizing compositions.  dig in.

phoria – “saving us a riot”

phoria band
photo courtesy of the artist

after delivering sensual, syncopated r&b on last fall’s “melatonin,” you’d be forgiven for thinking that phoria would double down on an aesthetic they so clearly excel at.  instead, the quintet has delivered “saving us a riot,” a gorgeous, stripped down folk ballad with flecks of chamber pop sprinkled across its exterior.  the lilt of acoustic guitars lay the foundation for a soothing lullaby soon punctuated by affecting string counter-melodies, proving that phoria’s penchant for intimacy can effortlessly take on multiple forms.  take a listen to “saving us a riot” below.

gem club – “speech of foxes”

gem club
photo courtesy of tonje thilesen

there’s no word yet on a follow-up album to gem club’s immensely poignant in roses, but there is this haunting, pastoral music video for “speech of foxes” in the meantime.  the ben phillippo-directed clip initially popped up during 2015’s year-end list season, causing some regrettable oversight on our end.  like its aural counterpart, the video for “speech of foxes” is profoundly introspective, with phillippo masterfully obscuring the line between metaphor and reality as the central character cleanses himself of his past.  it’s as therapeutic as it is heartbreaking.  spend some time with “speech of foxes” below.

soft cat – all energy will rise

soft cat all energy will rise
out april 7th via miscreant records/father daughter records

neil sanzgiri’s output at the helm of soft cat has often felt bucolic and in touch with his natural surroundings; those tenets resonate in full on his project’s latest effort, all energy will rise.  conceived from the remnants of personal tragedy, all energy will rise follows sanzgiri and his fellow musicians through a beautiful odyssey of chamber ensemble arrangements on their path to collective enlightenment.

sanzgiri and company often cycle between moments of hazy ambience and sustained periods of meticulously orchestrated counterpoint.  the ambiguity of the former could very well hold a secondary, symbolic meaning, but on record its presence seems to mark the beginning and end of cohesive musical ideas.  the first third of all energy will rise is structured around remarkable clarity and conscious melodic interplay, from sanzgiri’s vocal takes and finger-picking on “somebody” to the gradual polyphony found in “new song” all the way to the union of the two on “old song.”  the songs are a perfect execution of the camaraderie one would expect from a group identifying as a collective, but the pleasing harmonic consonance belies the darker undertones buried in this album.

there are shards of melancholy in all energy will rise, particularly in the mournful midsection that spans the masterful “diana” to the swaying “desert eyes,” but it doesn’t feel self-indulgent; it feels necessary.  it’s an inevitable, logical response to near total loss of personal livelihood, and soft cat would be remiss not to acknowledge these more plaintive feelings.

this vast chunk relies more frequently on sanzgiri’s lyrics to deliver each song’s main narrative – although the chill and sparseness of “field gap (for chris marker)” may most convincingly represent the somber nature of the album’s backstory – but its presentation doesn’t read as strictly linear.  rather, sanzgiri delves deep into the complexity of his natural surroundings and inspects their wide spectrum of impact, coming up with a narrative that reads largely as a wash, devoid of anything starkly positive or negative.  perhaps it’s this complexity that leads to the belated thesis of the album, found in its title track: a recognition that the world is bigger and more beautiful than the sum of any one individual’s parts.

all energy will rise is an album of reconciliation.  its themes move through moments of premature clarity, past the melancholic entrapments of writing about personal loss and confusion, and pushes on to firmly assert a victorious stance; there’s a level of cohesion felt on this record that is exceedingly rare.

perhaps most importantly, sanzgiri and his host of collaborators have succeeded in conveying this wealth of emotions on a purely musical level as well.  the lush string arrangements and warm brass tones gradually brim with confidence as the album progresses – though they never spill over into an artificial state of euphoria – and the moments that feel disorienting in their lack of clarity are carefully calculated bits of contrast, allowing the ensemble a fresh palate to draw upon.  for an album that is so indebted to the inner workings of the natural world, all energy will rise unfolds impressively in an appropriately organic manner; this feels like the record sanzgiri was always meant to create.

8.4/10

listen to a new song from we are the willows

minneapolis sextet we are the willows crafts the kind of indie rock best described as chamber music propelled by hearty percussion and bucolic vocal harmonies, relying on various string timbres to weave countermelodies through gripping lyrical narratives.  the band released their sophomore effort picture (portrait) via the homestead records today, an excellent, sprawling album based around letters written by frontman peter miller’s grandfather throughout the second world war.  one of the more gripping songs on the album is “dear ms. branstner,” a rather plaintive outing that finds miller weighing out the concepts of love and mortality in his assured countertenor.  take a listen below.

the antlers – familiars

when the antlers released burst apart three years ago, it was clear that the album constituted a make-it-or-break it scenario for the band; their 2009 album hospice, the brooklyn trio’s debut effort as a collaborative project, received immediate, almost unanimous universal acclaim and catapulted the antlers into the indie spotlight.  luckily, burst apart was a suitable follow-up and a substantial success in its own right, but frontman peter silberman still finds himself confronted with inquiries about hospice, more than five years after the album’s release.  although there are those who still can’t let go of the past, silberman certainly isn’t one of them.  the antlers’ newest effort, familiars, is a lush musical experience that all but abandons the outfit’s signature heartbreak.

while silberman is the face and the voice of the antlers (after all, it was his initial solo project and his emotive metaphor that began to turn heads), familiars is an environment that finds all three members contributing equally.  a large portion of musical direction seems to come from darby cicci, the multi-instrumentalist responsible for much of the texture on the album.  previously confined to a primary role of keyboardist and an explicit secondary exploration of trumpet, cicci has full reign on familiars; many songs have a foundation of acoustic piano, layered trumpet, and michael lerner’s drums, further augmented by extremely prominent bass lines (also courtesy of cicci) that slither throughout the chord progressions and give the antlers’ sonic palate a more organic low end.

instead of silberman’s guitar largely defining the album like it did on hospice and, to a lesser extent, on burst apart, the instrument has the chordal support of the piano and the occasional melodic support of the trumpet, making the moments where it truly separates from the texture that much more meaningful.  take “director,” the album’s centerpiece, for example: although the ostinato guitar riff is arguably a staple of the song, the instrument doesn’t really begin to take control until the descending riff and subsequent counter-melody kick in halfway through.  underneath is that warm palate, full of drums and resonant bass that, although devoid of the trumpet in this particular instance, help the antlers firmly place a foot in the realm of jazz that has so long been an influence.

though a musical liberation of sorts for the antlers is present, silberman’s lyrical and vocal progressions are less discernible, relying even more so on subtle nuances.  his falsetto lamentations are still there, but silberman showcases a desire to return to his natural range, even dipping into lower, haunting extremes on “doppelganger.”  lyrically, he’s more of a wildcard; “hotel” is extremely sparse yet somewhat confessional, as silberman admits “i rent a blank room to stop living in my past self,” while “parade” traces a more narrative style and lacks any type of hook.  one constant that remains throughout is a sense of ambiguity, as silberman seems to strive less to attach an explicit meaning to each song and instead explore more inclusive, multi-dimensional emotions.

familiars is nearly an hour of slow-burning which may inevitably put listeners into two broad camps: those that dismiss the album due to a perceived sense of stagnancy and those that appreciate it for its nuances and painstaking attention to detail.  the latter of these two camps is the best lens through which to view this album.  the antlers continue to expound and expand an incredibly complex and dense aesthetic, and provide another body of work that demands to be addressed before the reminiscing can begin.

8.9/10

rivers – of dusk

a musical trope that has become nearly synonymous with eau claire over the past ten years is the rustic, acoustic-driven tones of acts like the daredevil christopher wright, kalispell, and of course, bon iver.  at this point, a continuation down that already-beaten path may run the risk of seeming redundant, as if the artists might be trying to cash in on an established aesthetic rather than creating something genuine.  on the opposite end of the spectrum lies rivers, a three-piece currently splitting time between the midwest and the east coast; folk music is merely the vessel through which the band conveys their ideas, as opposed to their endgame.  on their debut effort, of dusk, rivers offers up a collection of songs that offer up a fresh new perspective on an established tradition.

dexter wolfe’s songwriting has always had a slightly enigmatic quality; even in the hard-hitting, comparatively aggressive setting of his previous band sky lion, it was evident that wolfe took various cues from introspective stalwarts like elliott smith and elvis costello.  the former’s influence resonates clearly throughout of dusk and particularly on “even if,” an early track that remains a standout through the album’s duration.  wolfe proves himself to be rather skilled in the department of imagery as well, bookending the album with lyrics like “beneath yellow leaves / with rolled up sleeves / eyes lost in the branches / of your family tree” (see “weeping willow”) and “it was the start of something beautiful / i heard her heart and tripped, well… i fell right down” (see “where though lies, death ripples”).  his capability to weave personal accounts with metaphor and personification plays off as effortless, and more importantly helps to establish rivers as a lyrically mature and formative ensemble.

the music that accompanies the poetry on of dusk is perhaps even more impressive.  alongside wolfe – who handles guitar and piano chores in addition to vocals – are pat kuehn and colin carey, who tackle upright bass and percussion duties, respectively.  kuehn’s bass playing is the timbral element that immediately stands out and seeks to separate rivers from the other bands who share a similar aesthetic; the long, mournful bowed tones augment the melancholy in the beginning of “even if,” but kuehn’s role also serves the purpose of driving the music forward in spots where carey’s percussion is rather sparse.  by itself, the resonance of the upright bass gives rivers a distinct, orchestral quality, one which is further explored multiple times through the string and horn arrangements found on “saudade” and “the locket.”  even carey’s drumming can feel symphonic at times, as he adds sparse percussive supplements to the more delicate moments on the album and aids the band in achieving their select few moments of absolute crescendo.

sharp songwriting and intuitive arrangements adorn of dusk, and its slightly haunting characteristics make the record a suitable companion for the chilly air that predominates these waning spring nights.  largely self-produced and entirely self-released, rivers and of dusk have proven to be adequate advocates for the continued support of independent, local music; sometimes all it takes is years of determination and perseverance.  you can stream the album here and find all of the dates for rivers’ upcoming tour, as well.

8.0/10

listen to a new song from gem club

fresh on the heels of their excellent sophomore album, in roses, boston trio gem club have contributed a stunning track to the website stadiums & shrines, as a part of their “dreams” series.  “mother in comet (dreams of england’s countryside)” is a brief ambient sprawl, forgoing any vocals in order to showcase the ensemble’s heightened awareness for the power of simple textures.  you can stream and download the track below, courtesy of the site’s soundcloud page.

gem club – in roses

often times, when an indie rock band is given the sub-genre label of chamber pop, it’s a marker to distinguish smart vocal harmonies and sometimes songwriting that evokes the style of baroque-period classical music.  boston trio gem club is a bit different.  i’ve always thought of them as a chamber ensemble that plays pop music; comprised of cello, piano, and a pair of voices, gem club’s music is hauntingly intimate to a degree on par with many classical chamber groups.  the trio’s first two recordings, 2010’s acid and everything ep and their debut full-length album breakers, reflected that intimacy, with sparse arrangements recorded in isolated bedrooms.  gem club’s sophomore album, in roses, finds the ensemble expanding their sonic palate ever so slightly while retaining the emotions that so easily tug at heartstrings.

songs like “michael” are immediate and prevalent examples of this expansion; a truly aching track, the piano’s harmony and the mournful cello line are augmented by melancholy horns and brief instances of chimes.  synthesizers also run rampant across in roses, whether hiding underneath other textures on “hypericum” or completely setting the scene on the closing number, “polly.”  some of this admirable exploration can be attributed to having a proper recording studio and a well-respected musical director at their disposal, but gem club should be held in esteem for the deft nature of these orchestrations and the subtle nuances they provide.

in roses still captures gem club at the core of their essence; even with supplements, it’s clear that their overall aesthetic remains the same.  “soft season” and “speech of foxes” largely lean on the minimalism of the band’s early career, stripping back down to cello and piano along with sparse amounts of white noise to cushion the composition.  and while frontman christopher barnes seems pretty adamant that gem club’s music isn’t necessarily sad, it’s hard not to feel a bit somber and introspective when he harmonizes with ieva berberian; their voices line up perfectly with the accompaniment.

i’m not sure how the songs on in roses will translate to the stage; many would work very well stripped down to the original instrumentation of the trio, but i don’t know if gem club has any plans to bring additional musicians on tour.  what i do know is that in roses is a fine record, one that’s already proven useful throughout this frigid month and one that will help to set gem club apart from all of those other woeful sad bastards in the world.

8.3/10