Tag Archives: indie

The Verge: Esben and the Witch

Esben and the Witch takes its name from a Danish fairy tale. In the story, Esben is the runt of twelve brothers that set out to seek their fortunes. Though neglected and abused, Esben manages to outsmart a witch and a king, saving his brothers’ lives; he becomes a hero in the process. Like most pre-Disney fairy tales, there is a darkness that taints the seemingly innocent children’s story. In the case of Esben and the Witch, there is enough throat-slitting, child-roasting, and king-hanging to keep kids up at night.

Fittingly, the style of the Brighton three-piece, which draws from post-punk and shoegaze, has been described as “nightmare pop.” Esben and the Witch give a Gothic feel to the nuanced pop stylings of contemporaries The XX; the band’s aesthetic and two-guys-and-a-girl composition will no doubt lead to comparisons, as well. On the strength of their 33 EP and single “Lucia, At The Precipice,” (along with early love from the UK music media) the band landed a deal with indie powerhouse Matador Records.

“Lucia, At The Precipe” is a harbinger of the music on their Matador debut, Violet Cries. Rachel Davies’ breathy vocals are the focal point, as Daniel Copeman and Thomas Fisher build walls of shadows with their creepy instrumentals (Davies also contributes, on bass and percussion).

Many songs on the album follow the same pattern: Davies’ restrained singing over an ethereal soundscape of swirling piano and guitar, before cascading drums crash overhead. Songs like “Swans,” “Marine Fields Glow” and “Eumenides” are more ambient and spaced-out than the electronic-tinged “Hexagon IV,” “Chorea,” and “Warpath.” Standout track “Light Streams” sounds like a lo-fi, down-tempo song by Florence and the Machine. But whether pensive or chaotic, the band nails their sound tighter than a lid on a coffin.

A simple, repetitive drum beat is the engine that drives “Marching Song,” the lead single on Violet Cries. The lyrics are like a Gothic take on the “Charge of the Light Brigade,” and the video capitalizes on the brutal, visceral imagery contained within.

Grave rave looks to be the sound of 2011, as Verge featurees like Creep and True Womanhood flirt with darkness. The nightmare pop of Esben and the Witch is a welcome addition to the genre at-large.

Esben and the Witch, Wise Blood, and Last Tide play DC’s Red Palace next Thursday, March 3.

Album Review: Radiohead – The King of Limbs

Commentary about Radiohead’s unique distribution model has surpassed discussion of their music for some time now. After the pay-what-you-want (followed by pay-a-lot-for-extras) model they utilized on 2007’s In Rainbows, the band again surprised the music world by going from announcement to release in just five days on their their newest record, The King of Limbs. Today, it debuted digitally (a day early), while the physical and deluxe “newspaper album” versions will follow in March and May, respectively. But enough about that.

The King of Limbs builds on the atmospheric ambiance of Kid A and In Rainbows, putting the band’s early grunge sound even further in the rear view. There’s not even anything approaching the rough-edged rock of In Rainbow’s “Bodysnatchers.” Instead, Radiohead embraces Thom Yorke’s solo work and collaboration with beatmaker Flying Lotus, crafting an album that is sober and melancholy. It’s their most cerebral work yet.

Like a flower in spring, the album opens with “Bloom.” The cascading garage beat gives way to a jazz feel: muted bass, echoing guitar and orchestral strings that swell as if they’re an extension of Yorke’s voice. After “Bloom,” the album reveals a trifecta of twitchy, cacophonous bliss. On “Morning Mr Magpie,” Yorke coos “you’ve got some nerve / coming here / you stole it all / give it back” as the instrumental loops double back on themselves. The title of “Little By Little” describes how it progresses, as the electronic sharpness of programmed drums juxtaposes Yorke’s falsetto: “I’m such a tease and you’re such a flirt.” “Feral” is the most experimental of the three, surging but never quite breaking through.

The first single, “Lotus Flower,” harks back to the immediacy of “Reckoner.” The lyrics seem to describe the mood of the album and the band’s own subversive approach to music: “I will sneak myself into your pocket… We will sink and be quiet as mice / While the cat is away and do what we want.” Once again, Yorke’s lilting falsetto provides a romantic edge to an otherwise cold tune. In a new turn, the video features him doing an impression of Marcel Marceau during a seizure.

Except for a heartbeat bass drum, “Codex” is exceedingly simple, driven only by piano chords and vocals, until mournful horns enter, dueting with Yorke. The lyrics focus on innocence, while the line “jump off the edge / into a clear lake” make this the 21st century version of the band’s suicide-anthem “Creep.” “Give up the ghost” is an adjoiner to both “Bloom” and “Codex,” with it’s nature’s symphony sound effects and hollow-body acoustic guitar.

The album closes with “Separator,” which features Phil Selway’s punchiest drum line and guitar trills and fills right out of the Zeppelin song book. Its “wake me up” refrain is an appropriate close for a dreamy album that never gets out of bed. On The King of Limbs, Radiohead retreats under the covers and into half-dream, half-real world. Won’t you join them?

The Verge: True Womanhood

DC’s True Womanhood is a three-piece band that makes experimental, avant pop. While their sound owes much to touchstones like Joy Division and Echo and the Bunnymen, it’s not just a post-punk pastiche. The band, comprised of Thomas Redmond (vocals, guitar) Melissa Beattie (bass) and Noam Elsner (drums, electronics), is unafraid to reach for contemporary sounds, spending more time looking forward than back.

On last year’s Basement Membranes EP, True Womanhood demonstrated their mastery of their favorite genres. “The Monk” opens the EP and sets the tone: macabre and brooding. “Dignitas” is either about the Roman concept of dignity or the assisted suicide organization of the same name. The down tempo jam, with it’s vertigo-inducing “don’t look down / or you’ll fall” lyric, builds and swells to a breakdown that is funky in the same way that Nine Inch Nails’ “into the void” is funky. Other standouts are “Rubber Buoys,” which would fit in on OK Computer, and “Magic Child,” which emerges from a foreboding haze before breaking out the “punk” in post punk.

“Dream Cargoes,” off their forthcoming record, builds on the sounds of Basement Membranes. A delay-heavy guitar riff plays off a goth disco beat, along with the band’s characteristically gloomy, nostalgia-heavy lyrics: “You’re a big boy / you’re a preteen / but you’re no man.”

True Womanhood – Dream Cargoes

True Womanhood continues to experiment, incorporating new sounds into their established aesthetic. “The Grey Man” is unnerving and spooky, utilizing a rudimentary industrial beat and muted chords, with filtered vocals. The moombahton-influenced “Minajah” actually sounds more like witch house to me, with the skittering synths of Salem. But in keeping with their DIY, lo-fi stylings, they crafted the song with reel-to-reel tape and analog effects.

After a successful 2010, True Womanhood is poised to breakout in 2011. The band has a few East Coast dates lined up that shouldn’t be missed.

Mar 11 – The Rock Shop – Brooklyn, NY
Mar 12 – Kungfu Necktie – Philadelphia, PA
Mar 13 – The Red Palace – Washington, DC

Introducing Mercies

Mercies is a DC-based power trio that benefits greatly from the work its members have done with other local bands. Guitarist-vocalist John Russell also plays in the jammier ThunderTyts (and was a member of Little Bigheart), bassist-vocalist Justin Scott writes electro-tinged indie pop as Stout Cortez, and drummer Ezra Finney also plays with City Folk. As Mercies, the band makes indie rock that is confrontational yet catchy, in the tradition of Wire and the Pixies.

The band’s self-titled EP gives a taste of what they’re about, pulling from a range of influences. The rollicking “Precipice” bounces along with the occasional shrieked lyric, while “This is Not About Control” is more brooding. The vocal interaction between Russell and Scott is interesting and always different: sometimes harmonizing, other times juxtaposing through counterpoint.

The EP piqued my interest, but their live show sealed the deal. Playing to a full backstage room at the Black Cat last Thursday, Mercies rocked on a visceral level only hinted at on their EP. The soundboard recordings do a good job of capturing that energy. “Decade” is the strongest of the bunch, with sharp guitar and bass riffs, Russell with his grungiest growl, Scott’s soaring “ohs” and “ahs” and rumbling beats from Finney.

Local music scenes often take on an incestuous quality, with musicians collaborating and growing together in various configurations. The fruits of that labor is evident with Mercies. Catch them at Sidebar Tavern in Baltimore on March 30 and Asylum in DC on April 7.

Album Review: Ra Ra Rasputin – Ra Ra Rasputin

Synth pop. New wave. Dance punk. Three related, overlapping genres that, among other things, share an emphasis on the melding of the natural and the artificial. A lot of bands dabble in this territory; successful bands find the right balance.

DC stalwarts Ra Ra Rasputin have perfected their formula on their long-awaited debut. After developing as a live entity over the last few years, the band recorded their self-titled record, leaning heavily on the “dance” portion of their “dance punk” formulation.

The albums opens with a razor-sharp synth line and some David Byrne-styled vocals on “Stereocutter.” Swirls and swells of synthesizer dominate “Neon Scthye,” a song propelled by full low-end bass. This one-two punch sets the album’s tone.

Densely layered, lush compositions balance the cold, monotonic vocals of Brock Boss throughout the album. Something that stands out and differentiates the album from the band’s live performances is the house vibe. The band is unafraid to jam over an extended loop for spacey dance breaks; “Fit Fixed” devolves into a seductive house jam that will be a lot of fun live.

Compared to the rest of the album, “The Day Of” is a bit more aggressive, with plenty of cow bell and more emphasis on Patrick Kigongo’s guitar. It also features a revealing chorus that says a lot about where the band is coming from, musically: “I’ve got love for you if you survived in the 80s.” (This performance doesn’t show the band’s trademark energy, but I suspect it’s because they’re playing to an empty newsroom and not a crowd.)

The standout track is “Electricity Through the Heart,” due in large part to the addition of vocals provided by Anna Rozzi. The song is reminiscent of art-punks Pretty Girls Make Graves; it’s available for free on the band’s website.

Comparisons to contemporaries Cut Copy, Hot Chip, and Delorean are apt, but the sonic godfather of Ra Ra Rasputin is Depeche Mode. The band has the neon glow of the 80s locked down, with enough modern touches to make a well-worn style sound fresh and vibrant. Unfortunately, the album is missing the hooks that put the “pop” in “synth pop.” Still, it’s an impressive, well-produced debut from a promising DC band.

Three out of five stars.

Catch Ra Ra Rasputin at the Black Cat on October 9th for their joint record release party with Casper Bangs.

The Verge: Zola Jesus

For the last year or so, there has been a renaissance in lo-fi music, across genre lines. Whether making surf pop (Best Coast, Dum Dum Girls), chillwave (Toro y Moi, Neon Indian) or witch house (Salem, Mater Suspiria Vision), there is a premium on the bedroom recorded, four-track tape sound.

Nika Roza Danilova is a Wisconsin-born singer-songwriter who performs as Zola Jesus. Last year, she released two such bedroom albums, New Amsterdam and The Spoils, and garnered acclaim from the usual suspects. And for good reason – buried beneath fuzz, static and gothic drone is a talented songwriter with some serious pipes. The music is dark and mournful with melodies that remind me of Bat for Lashes.

Danilova cites Throbbing Gristle among her influences, and on her first two albums, it shows. She’s not afraid to push things into industrial, dissonant territory. There is an ambient uneasiness throughout, and with her music’s goth feel, it works. And while key elements of this style continue on this year’s Stridulum, she’s taken major creative steps forward, breaking out of the lo-fi box with style.

Throughout Stridulum (and the double EP of the same name), the focus is on Daniloa’s operatic vocals. Minor-key synthesizers waft over strings and piano melodies, stark and simple drums drone in the background, but everything operates in service of song. The album opens, appropriately, with “Night,” a mournful love song that is tinged with loss.

“Trust Me” and “I Can’t Stand” tread on similar sonic and lyrical ground, with strong results. The 808-like rhythm on “Sea Talk” harks back to earlier material, while the emphasis on vocal melody is definitely in line with the rest of the album; the “Poltergeist”-themed clip is yet another fantastic piece of video art.

With Stridulum, Zola Jesus is ready to burst from the bedroom to the big time. The prolific songwriter is back with yet another EP next month (Valusia). She opens for The XX and Warpaint at a sold-out 9:30 Club show on Tuesday, and then she’ll be touring Europe through November. And next time she rolls through town, she’ll be headlining.

The Verge: Big Troubles

As the saying goes, “everything old is new again.” This partially explains the glut of indie bands whose sounds are indebted to both the the fuzzy post-punk of the Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine and the alternative sensibilities of the Pixies and Nirvana. For some reason, the Jersey suburbs of Bergen County have proven to be a particularly fertile ground for this type of music, giving us Vivian Girls, Real Estate and Ducktails. The most exciting new band to emerge out of this scene is Big Troubles.

Big Troubles make catchy noise pop that is not as dreary as their foreboding name and album title would suggest. Worry, released yesterday on Olde English Spelling Bee Records, is a hook-infested, fuzzed out collection of 14 songs that are heavy on nostalgia for 80s and 90s indie rock.

Throughout Worry, Ian Drennan and Alex Craig present songs that play bigger than the duo’s bedroom recordings should allow (the membership of the band doubles live). Waves of feedback and fuzz, artful guitar arpeggios, and basic surf rock rhythm tracks go hand-in-hand with reverbed vocal lines. “Freudian Slip” sounds like a Smashing Pumpkins B-side melted onto a JAMC tape, while “Drastic and Difficult” is just that: eardrum piercing squeals that barely give way to verse and chorus. The opening crunch of “Modern Intimacy” opens up into a wavy Beach Boys guitar line.

Both the song and video for “Bite Yr Tongue” find the band in their comfort zone. A soaring guitar riff repeats throughout a verse-chorus-verse composition, before turning into sonic chaos that is somehow still pleasant. For the synesthesic among us, the video looks how the song sounds: dissonant but playful.

Whatever the state of irony in 2010 underground culture, the band’s decision to start an Angelfire webpage (“The #1 site for teens… Best viewed in Netscape 2.0,” the scrolling text reads) is hilarious and telling. Underneath music that is superficially harsh and unforgiving, there is a flippant, youthful attitude. It’ll serve Big Troubles well as they try to give some shine to a well-worn stone.