Why so quiet on the blog?

Map and Compass by Hilltops and Coffeeshops

I apologize for the virtual silence on the blog in recent months. The reason is that two major projects and social engagements have taken up the majority of my time.

The first is that Joe and I are finally finishing Map and Compass, and it will release on our Noisetrade November 5th.  Follow us on Facebook or Tumblr, or download some of our music on Noisetrade to be notified the moment it’s released. We’ll be so pleased to deliver the product of months of hard work, and even close a chapter in our lives in some way.

Secondly, I’m working on some major updates to Stoneoakbuilders.com, my brother-in-law’s site. I’m excited for how things are turning out, and before too long the site will be fully mobile-optimized.

So that’s why there haven’t been posts recently. Once those two things are out the door, expect more regular posting to resume.

Throwback Thursday – “Dawn Escapes” by Falling Up

Dawn Escapes by Falling Up

As the oppressive heat of summer in the South shows no signs of relenting, I long for crisp and cool autumn nights.  This album takes me back not only to that glorious season, but also to a year in my life which began a personal renaissance.

I guess I can start by saying that this album isn’t actually among my favorites.  I would probably only rank it three out of five stars.  But as with much music, it’s about the memories and feelings it evokes, not necessarily the material itself.  Dawn Escapes was originally released on October 25, 2005.  This landed it squarely in the fall of my sophomore year of college, one of the first times I felt free to explore and express myself.  For various reasons, my freshman year of college was somewhat of a throw-away year, particularly when it came to personal growth.  So, freshly returned from summer break and unencumbered by the anchors of the past, I dove headlong into college life that semester.

I remember driving over to Rocketown with some friends to see Falling Up perform some of the new material.  This was perhaps a couple of weeks before the record dropped.  Upon hearing the new songs, the ethereal tones and guitar parts didn’t surprise me, but what did catch me off guard was the amount of piano and keys that were featured.  While their debut offering had scant keyboards and programming, this release leaned on them heavily.  Front-man Jesse Ribordy even mentioned from stage that they had tried to make a more pop-accessible record, which was disappointing to me as a blooming emo-kid.  To this day I wonder if label pressure was the reason for the shift.  Still, I enjoyed the show and looked forward to the album, even pre-ordering it, if my memory serves me correctly.

Despite the changes from its predecessor, Dawn Escapes is by no means a bad album.  It contains all the core elements from Crashings, and there is nothing simplistic about the songs or composition.  Despite the electronic base, there is also a bit of edge; it’s a far cry from The Postal Service.  Ribordy’s clear voice delivers cryptic lyrics over distorted guitars, synthesizers, and crashing cymbals, as well as pianos and percussion loops.  Best of all, they didn’t include any rap vocal cameos this time around.  Despite their young age, I still believe that Falling Up was writing mature music compared to their peers, even if they did borrow some elements from well-known mainstream acts.

Uncharacteristically, I don’t have a connection with many of the words on this album.  Instead, it is the spacey atmosphere that takes me back to driving around Nashville with the windows down, cool and crisp air flooding into the car to match the ethereal sounds.  I savor the memories of that season, which was in many ways a time of rebirth and renewal for me.

You can find the electronic and keyboard-infused rock of Dawn Escapes on Spotify or Amazon.

Throwback Thursday – “()” by Sigur Ros

() by Sigur Ros

Sorry for the long delay between posts.  First I was off traveling for a couple of weeks, then getting back into the swing of things.  Finally, entries resume.

This week instead of reminiscing about summers past, I’m remembering an album that calls to mind freezing temperatures and short days.  It’s not that I’m ready for the dead of winter by any means, but a song from this album came up on shuffle for me recently, and I recalled that it was the album that first made me fall in love with epic, instrumental post-rock.

I’ve never talked to anyone who knows what the title of this album is.  Some pronounce () simpy as “Untitled.”  This makes it very hard to search for, but naming an album with empty parentheses is likely an artistic statement which Sigur Ros intended to make.  What that statement is, I’m not sure.  I do know that this is one of their darkest albums, sonically speaking.  Some have posited that it represents the emptiness felt by members of the band during that period of their lives, a hypothesis which I believe has merit.  All but a select few moments on the album are brooding, ethereal, and even ominous.

While the album was released in 2002, I first came across it as winter approached in late 2009.  Early nightfall was perfectly accompanied by the ambient, yet deeply emotional sounds of this album.  As with other seasons of my life, mistakes and relational situations weighed heavy on my heart.  The shortening days didn’t help my mood, but this album connected on a level deeper than words could describe.

As with most of Sigur Ros’s work, the vocals are not the feature.  Or they are, but no one can understand them.  In fact, on this album, they’re mostly indiscernible noise, but in a beautiful way.  Some have said that front-man Jonsi is singing in a made-up language.  While that may be, track after track, his haunting falsetto captures as much emotion as could be expected from words which can’t be understood.  In this regard, it’s odd that I love this album as much as I do.  Typically, lyrics are a huge part of what makes a song click for me.  In this case, the music is so good that it happens not to matter.  Discernible or not, the intent is clearly conveyed in the vocals.  Part of me wishes there were profound lines to accompany the instrumentation, but I realize that in this case, that isn’t necessary.

As is common in the genre, tracks routinely reach the ten-minute mark.  In fact, not a single song is under six minutes.  This is music that needs to be mulled and digested, not tossed on the radio for a quick hit and a few bucks.  Still, this particular album is dynamic enough that I wouldn’t consider it background music.  The final track (affectionately labeled as “Untitled 8”) builds from somber vocals punctuated with toms to a furious, aggressive finish, including the most powerful drumming of the album.  I remember lying on the floor at my duplex on Battery Lane, listening to the track through the 1970s stereo my dad gave me as the darkness outside quietly fell around the house.

The album would go on to typify that freezing and lonely winter with its somber and atmospheric sounds.  Today it reminds me of the power of music in and of itself, apart from lyrical content.

You can find the layered and emotional post-rock of () on Spotify and Amazon.

Throwback Thursday – “In Shallow Seas We Sail” by Emery

In Shallow Seas We Sail by Emery

Seeing as today is July the 4th, I thought I would reminisce on an album that reminds me of summer.  There are a few, to be sure, but this one reminds me of one of my favorite summers, the summer of 2009.  Though it was my first summer having a full-time job, it was epically fun, and this album provided much of the windows-down headbanging soundtrack.

I don’t exaggerate when I say this album is in my top ten favorites.  Each song is a veritable masterpiece in its own right, but the best ones are simply breathtaking.  After experimenting a bit with their sound in 2007, Emery returned to their roots with the artful juxtaposition they were known for.  Intricate dueling vocals, fascinating drum backing, and dynamic guitar playing all anchor the album, no pun intended.  I was impressed enough to write a full review right after its release.  My opinions still hold up years later.

Lyrically, the songs speak much of broken hearts and the perpetrators which have caused them.  Still healing from a break-up around the beginning of that year, it was quite cathartic to sing along at the top of my lungs while driving down the interstate.  There’s nothing quite like the delicate harmonies of Toby Morrell and Devin Shelton transitioning into a full-on screamo breakdown.  The style may have seen its day come and go, but the creativity behind it is undeniable, in my opinion.  Songs such as “Curbside Goodbye” and “In Shallow Seas We Sail” capture the full gamut of emotion, from sullen reflection to aggressive release, in a way that doesn’t seem possible with other genres.

The album carried me through the hot summer months before eventually waning in my rotation.  I now pull it out every now and then when I need to be reminded of what is possible when musicianship and raw passion collide.

You can find the complex, dynamic masterpiece that is In Shallow Seas We Sail on Spotify or Amazon.

Throwback Thursday – “Hey, I’m a Ghost” by Sullivan

Hey I'm a Ghost by Sullivan

It’s summer, so I felt like reminiscing about an album that reminds me of the best summer ever, summer 2006.  That summer featured some epically long hair, playing shows with Joe and Kyle, and Hey, I’m a Ghost by Sullivan.

I’m not quite sure what possessed me to go out to Best Buy and pick up the compact disc that June.  Because the band was on Tooth and Nail records, I had listened to some of their singles when the album originally came out in January of that year.  At that time, I just found it weird.  I seriously thought a girl was singing at the beginning of one song because Brooks Paschal’s falsetto was so breathy.  But for some reason, the music connected with me over that hot, lively summer break.

Sullivan’s music is an interesting mix of pop-punk, emo, and even some post-hardcore elements.  There is no screaming, but the high-pitched, strained vocals emit passion.  Guitar parts aren’t necessarily complex, but they’re not mind-numbingly simple, either.  Sections feature clean picking leading up to rock-style breakdowns, while yet others judiciously use effects and an e-bow to create atmosphere.  Every so often, lead licks will surface to remind the listener that this is not just a bunch of kids rocking out in a garage.  The drums are mixed up-front and aggressively, but not unpolished.  It really is a fascinating balance of raw youthfulness and professional musicianship.

Brooks’s vocals deserve a write-up all to themselves.  While the music is interesting, the singing is even more so.  He spans from delicate falsetto to emotional singing to passionate yelling, often within a minute of performance.  He stays on key enough to exhibit talent, but pushes the line enough to stay edgy and raw.  It’s intriguing to hear the different shades of vocals as the songs flow, and I’m probably still a fan of his voice to this day if only for the diversity he can deliver.

Song structures are not unpredictable, but they are often dynamic.  Again, it “feels” like pop-punk, but at the same time it doesn’t.  I think that’s one of the things that attracted me to Sullivan.  They are unabashedly young and energetic, but not simplistic.  That’s exactly what I felt like I needed that summer in the midst of my college years as I, too, clung to youth and became more of a complex individual.  At the same time, the production on this album is absolutely stellar thanks to Matt Goldman.  Every drop of potential is squeezed out of these songs, and it makes for a very enjoyable listen.

Lyrically, the album doesn’t cover anything too deep.  The typical fare from relationships to loneliness makes appearances, though rare songs like “The Charity of Saint Elizabeth” approach deeper topics, such as the death of a sick child, at a distance.  There are also several references to abusive relationships, primarily from the perspective of the good guy who lost the girl to an abusive jerk.  These, too, lend a different weight to the album than something like Dashboard Confessional of the same era might have.  My favorite passages are those that are dramatically emo.  Everyone needs some music to express feelings like those in the mantra of the opening track:

I can’t be a better boy
Than the one you had before
For that I apologize
For that I apologize

At least I needed such words during that season of my life.  There’s still something about the raw yet polished juxtaposition of this album that allows me to enjoy it on warm summer nights, reflecting on the turns my life has taken.  I may even hum along with some passages that still resonate within deep chambers of my heart.  Unfortunately, the band released another less-than-stellar album, then broke up, but perhaps they were together for such a time as my quintessential summer of 2006.

You can find the passionate yet refined emo of Hey, I’m a Ghost on Spotify and Amazon.

Review – “The Hurry and the Harm” by City and Colour

The Hurry and The Harm by City and Colour

City and Colour is definitely a band I use to find common ground with others.  Few can complain about the delicate vocals of Dallas Green, and the more recent efforts have tinged toward more of a classic sound.  The Hurry and the Harm is no exception.  Coming almost two years to the date after the release of Little Hell, the new release picks up right where it left off.

I’ll start by saying that there’s really nothing to complain about in this album.  There were no huge surprises stylistically, and everything from the performance to the production quality is excellent.  At the same time, I didn’t really find anything that connected with me or got me excited.  There are good songs, to be sure, but there are also songs that don’t stand out to me in any way because they sound like music that’s all been made before.  It’s still distinctively City and Colour, but traces remind me of bygone eras.  Fans of artists that gravitate toward sounds of the past will find lots to like on this album, while those hoping for something more modern or innovative may only find other aspects to appreciate.

Most of the songs implement a full-band sound similar to something one might hear in the mid-seventies.  Relatively simple acoustic guitar foundations support bass, electric guitar, and less-than-tight-sounding drums, all while the breathy vocals of Dallas float on top.  As stated, the performances are nearly flawless, but that comes as no surprise.  I believe Green is one of the premier male vocalists of our generation.  Some songs feature a simpler sound with only acoustic guitars and vocals, which come as a welcome break, in my opinion.  Finger-picking sections make up for the somewhat simple-sounding chords that are used elsewhere.  I miss the rich, even dissonant guitar work that characterized City and Colour’s earlier work, but the full-band composition adds complexity and dynamics in a different way.

If I had to choose one thing that I truly enjoyed about the album, it would be the lyrics.  Dallas Green has always had a knack for exploring serious topics.  I’ve always appreciated his ponderings even though I’m relatively certain we hold different world views.  Words like those from the title track exemplify his style of reflective songwriting:

But why are we so worried
More about the hurry
And less about the harm?

Always trying to conquer
That which does not offer
Anything more than a broken heart
Oh, what a cost for love

Other songs similarly explore questions of the human condition.  Personally, I didn’t find as much of a balance between concrete, heart-rending lyrics and deep questioning as in previous records, but I’m an emo-kid at heart; it will be hard to top Sometimes in my eyes.  Still, I applaud them for exploring their artistry and making the music they want to.  I always admire that more than a band that repeatedly churns out whatever sells.

In conclusion, I give The Hurry and the Harm three out of five stars.  It’s certainly a well-executed album, but I didn’t find anything to particularly love.  It will be a nice addition to a mix of City and Colour songs, and some standout tracks such as “The Lonely Life” and “The Golden State” could grow on me over time.  For anyone who is a fan of Dallas Green, it’s an easy decision to go ahead and pick it up.

You can find The Hurry and the Harm on Spotify and Amazon.

Throwback Thursday – “Cosmos” by The Send

Cosmos by The Send

Slacks and a button-down shirt.  That was the required attire every day during my 2007 summer internship.  While I am thankful for all that the learning that opportunity afforded, it was an extremely difficult season of my life.  I realized that a career in the corporate world would likely suck all life out of me, but it seemed the only way forward.  This was my last summer.  This was all I had before real life was over, and what awaited seemed to be gray drudgery until the end.  “This is what I have to look forward to / Work until death – a slow descent through / Carbon copy years smeared together,” to quote  a Hilltops and Coffeeshops song we wrote during that season.

But music is often a panacea, soothing so many aches that nothing else can.  Cosmos by The Send arrived at exactly the right time and did just that.  This Throwback Thursday begins like so many others, hearing a single on Radio U.  When my ears first took in “An Epiphany,” the lead single on the album, I almost felt guilty liking it.  There wasn’t any screaming.  There wasn’t anything hardcore about it at all.  There was a piano.  But it was deep.  I loved it.  It’s hard to explain how someone so entrenched in heavy music feels upon discovering soft, somewhat traditional music they appreciate, or at least it is for me.  It felt like it was too “safe” for me to enjoy it.  The album wouldn’t be released until the end of July.

As the long, hot days passed outside, I sat in my frigid cubicle, coding away and listening to new tracks as they were posted on MySpace.  After only one or two more songs, I pre-ordered and waited.  I won’t say that I expected the album to redeem my summer, but I most definitely looked forward to exploring the complex songwriting and production which took on such deep and personal topics.  Nothing in my life seemed to make sense, and there were few glimmers of hope for the years ahead.  I thought Joseph Kisselburgh just might express some of these things I was feeling.  Occasionally on warm June and July nights, I would go to “the secret spot” (an office building construction site) and just pour my fears and hopeless heart out to God.

When the record finally arrived, it was all I had hoped for and more.  Everything was meticulously crafted, both musically and lyrically.  Acoustic guitar would often lead into subtle verses with tasteful electric leads.  Choruses would fill with piano, remarkable drumming, and moving bass lines.  Each song had a distinct depth and feel without crossing over into lightheartedness.  Impressively, Kisselburgh had composed the entire album by himself, which additionally inspired me as a musician.  But most importantly, it spoke to my heart.  I had songs such as “Drown” to capture this dark and despairing time in my life.

I’m tired of this
Do I exist
I’m a ghost and
I’ve been pacing the halls
I’m tired of it

You remind me how
I begin to drown
You’re the only thing
That can save me now
Life has pushed me down
And it let me drown
You’re the only thing
That can save me now

Other tracks such as “Blocking the Sun,” “Begin,” and “Fire Colors” bear equal significance, though only a single song in the entire collection doesn’t address a weighty subject.  In some ways, it has a similar feel as one of my favorite books in the Bible, Ecclesiastes.  The human condition is explored from many angles, ultimately settling on a foundation of faith in a cause much greater.  Time and again I forget about this record only to rediscover it and remember how wonderful it is in every way.  It most certainly has a spot in my top ten list, though sadly it was the sole effort released by the artist before he faded into obscurity.

In conclusion, this album is a timeless masterpiece which probes the depths of man’s heart.  (Yes, I hold it in that high of esteem.)  I think that any fan of profound lyrics paired with complex, rock-tinged music will love this album.  Do yourself a favor and listen to it on a warm summer night under the stars, letting its beauty soak into you completely.

You can find the immaculately crafted songs of Cosmos on Spotify or Amazon.