Unconditional Arms: Kinship – There’s a group of people out there that might inherently get Kinship, the debut release from The American Scene’s side project Unconditional Arms. Those who have brought life into this world, who know the joy, the fear, the unrelenting wave of emotional apexes and crashes that come with fostering life might be in that group. After all, Kinship was started as a project for guitarist Jeffery Wright’s son, Owen. For the sake of exposing my biases, I am decidedly not someone who knows the emotional experience that come part and parcel with raising a child. There’s something integral to this album that I do not, cannot fully understand. That doesn’t mean that this album’s moving music is something that will be lost on anyone, though.
True enough, the album’s origins have a heartwarming sentiment behind them. Even considered outside of that, though, it’s a soft but striking collection of tracks with an instrumental hum that paints entire moments around its listeners. It’s post-rock to its core, but less bleary and droning than its contemporaries; Kinship comes right out of the speakers with clean, resonate guitar and melodies that move slowly through moods, telling stories that listeners can hear, see and feel without depending on a single word.
Opening with ‘Family Tree’, Wright sticks to the post-rock canon, but does so in a refreshingly neat and inviting way, showing off his skills as a guitarist while still bringing in dim hums and soft chimes that echo with familiarity and welcome, the kind of opening that even to the outsider truly does seem to fit with the sentiment of bringing a son into the world. The album diverges a bit from the mold after that, though, leaning into different songwriting styles and bringing in themes and tropes distinct to each track. ‘Rest’ brings in soft acoustic harmonies and lulling melodic accents that start as an echo behind the becalmed guitar and slowly work their way to the forefront while the acoustics drift off like a dream. In an incredibly intimate moment, ‘First Look 1’ starts with background noises and voices recalling the moment in which Wright first finds out he’s going to be a father before building into strident, almost choral progressions meant, perhaps a bit too idealistically, to capture the emotion behind that so-difficult-to-comprehend moment. Each track is true to form in its steady, meandering guitar and lengthy composition, but there’s a clear distinction from song to song, a different approach to each one that makes it apparent that they are all inspired by distinct and deeply personal moments.
For as private a time as it is meant to represent, the album is very much a community effort too, from the Kickstarter campaign that funded its recording to the grassroots means that Wright used to spread the word, even giving the album away for free at points. This is truly something that Wright made as a gift, and though its intentioned toward his son, he seems to be welcoming any fan of his work to come and enjoy it.
Made for his son but gifted to anyone who wants to share in the moment, Unconditional Arms’ Kinship is a sentimental but still completely enjoyable album filled with both post-rock convention and genre-pushing exploration. It’s continuously upbeat, which admittedly takes a certain mood to be able to appreciate, but at its core, the album is a gift, and even those of us who have no idea what this kind of parental experience is like can still appreciate the simple wonder of a father’s love and some seriously good music…7.8/10
The Family Tree
Blondfire: Young Heart – In my opinion, Blondfire is no doubt an up-and-coming synth pop band that everyone needs to be watching out for. I have had my eye on them since the release of their first album My Someday in 2008. Naturally, upon finding out about the release of Young Heart, my excitement was too real. I think that people often do not realize just how unique and intriguing synth can be, especially when you have a vocalist like Erica Driscoll on board. Young Heart has it all: tracks that will get you so hyped up due to the immensity of epic pop going on, and tracks that are subtle and sad and will have you hooked solely by the beauty of Driscoll’s voice. This album has twelve tracks, and not any two of them sound exactly alike; they all have a different feel with the variety instrumentals that have their shining moments. It’s just all around a rad listen. This is why I say with full confidence, if synth isn’t your thing, give this bad boy a listen. I have a feeling it could change your perspective.
If you’re looking for a song to jolt you into the grandest of moods, then I suggest you purchase this album and skip right to track three, ‘Waves’. This track is my absolute favorite on the album. It is a fabulous combination of jam and pop and is somehow a song I could put on my going out playlist as well as my going to bed playlist. I could rant and rave about Driscoll for this entire article. She is an amazing vocalist, rocking guitarist and she owns the keyboard; basically, the girl’s just got it going on. For the duration of this track, her voice shines through so well, which is why I would recommend it to anyone who is under the impression that this album is going to be simply a synthesizer accompanied by a monotone voice in the background. Driscoll outshines the background music, and her voice is simply captivating.
I’m also in love with track number eight, ‘Wild and Wasted’. This tune has a great uplifting intro mixing the synth with some serious keyboarding. The two vocalists in this number complement each other so well, and the echoing male background voice brings a mysterious feel into the otherwise pumped up music. The beat and rhythm is picking up and slowing down throughout the course of “Wild and Wasted” – just when you think you have the song figured out and labeled as a certain feel or tempo, Blondfire shakes it up. This album is just never boring, with its short and sweet tracks of absolute synth perfection…9.2
Sun Kil Moon: Benji - This is an album that perfectly demonstrates what makes the singer-songwriter genre so powerful by such understated means. The instrumentation is pure accompaniment, leaving the listener to focus on the scene the singer is setting.
Sun Kil Moon utilizes lazy vocals a la Dave Matthews but with richer, more visceral tones. Simple harmonies overlay simple guitar plucking that make for easy listening. It would be almost hypnotic if not for singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek’s emotional story-telling. He isn’t overloading the listener with a bunch of interpretive metaphors; he’s telling stories plainly and honestly. It’s a nice change of pace that makes the music feel like a personal look into his life.
Kozelek has been making music under different monikers since 2002, and it shows. Benji is alluringly imperfect, but it’s calculated and emotional. It’s real and it’s, to put it plainly, an album of melancholy lullabies. They exude their own unique beauty in their delivery and can be almost overwhelming if you listen long enough.
‘Carissa’ is wordy and tragic and not all that uncommon. But it’s so candid, and that’s why I like it. “Carissa was thirty-five, raised kids since she was fifteen years old and suddenly died/Next to an old river, fire pit, oh there’s gotta be more than that to it/She was only my second cousin but it don’t mean that I’m not here for her or that I wasn’t meant to give her life poetry/Make sure her name is known across every city”. Kozelek is essentially giving voice to the voiceless. He’s paying tribute to people no one would know of otherwise, and that, to me, is an excellent motivation for song writing.
I want to listen to the stories being told. I can relate. Each song is about something simple and real. That straightforwardness is what makes Benji powerful.
‘Richard Ramirez Died Today Of Natural Causes’ is this strange mix of storytelling with a haunting hook. It starts with a telling of the story of the “Night Stalker” killer but then focuses on the narrator’s story and the stories of those around him. I don’t know exactly what Kozelek is trying to point out here; whether he’s trying to humanize Ramirez or demonize humanity, or whether I’m interpreting it completely off the mark, the song is unsettling. But not so much that I don’t keep the track on repeat. It encompasses events that we’ve heard about on the news and brings us so close to them that we feel like we’re part of them. It’s actually quite emotional. I don’t know that Benji is an album to listen to when you’re trying to multi-task or aren’t completely focused on the music. It deserves and requires attention, even more so than songs that have more ambiguous or universal themes.
But enough with technicality. I enjoyed the album, and I’ve listened to it at least three times through now. I got lost in it. I felt what Kozelek is reliving because his lyrics open him up and make him vulnerable. His vocals border somewhere between spoken word and singing, resulting in something rough yet pleasant.
Sure, something catchy with a repetitive hook might draw a listener in, but if you can get on board with what Sun Kil Moon is putting out there, it might just give you a glimpse into someone’s personal world in a way that’s relatable to anyone who has endured heartache, pain, loss. That’s what makes for good music. I don’t expect to hear these songs on any syndicated radio shows anytime soon, but to me that’s better. It keeps the tracks personal and close to me, like my own secret despair that I can’t help but want to immerse myself in…8.0/10
Diamond Youth: Shake- Diamond Youth’s new release, Shake, can only be compared to that feeling of the very first nice day in spring when you can finally roll your windows down and rock out to your favorite jams. Yeah sure, the (sort of) Baltimore rockers show off their Weezer/Beach Boys roots throughout the EP but their sunny vibes take over and no matter where you’re listening, it’ll transport you to the open road where you won’t be able to shake off the need to dance horribly while hoping none of your co-workers drive by.
Although they claim Baltimore as their hometown it is only a half-truth. Diamond Youth is made up of residents of Baltimore, Richmond and Chicago. This makes the writing process quite different than that of most other bands. They use technology to bridge the gap, taking advantage of programs such as iChat, garage band and voice note files. Though their distance doesn’t always leave them scattered- they will be going on a west coast tour this April and will be heading out to the UK this summer.
The release, which dropped on February 4th, reels listeners in with its energetic first track ‘Red Water’. It begins with a familiar surf riff, but soon crosses over to more of a classic rock beat. With the introduction of lyrics comes a hidden gloom, all the while still tempting your dancing shoes. Subsequent comes the not-quite-title-track ‘Can’t Shake The Feeling’, which has to be my favorite. Not only does it have one of the strangest music videos I’ve ever seen- containing a lot of shirtless dudes, tighty whiteys, footy pajamas and the destruction of fruit… but it has a timelessness to it unmatched by the rest of the record. The first time I played it I felt like I’d heard it a million times before, but in the best way possible.
The band shows off their softer side on ‘Don’t Feel Real’. Its simplistic dreamy guitar paired with Justin Gilman’s smooth vocals and trippy lyrics bring together a song perfect for the soundtrack of a slow dance shared by Michael Cera and Kat Dennings in some indie movie. Cut to: ‘Warm Scene’, a sexy jam that highlights Gilman’s soprano range. What makes a song sexy you might ask? Give this one a listen and all of your questions will be answered. The high vocals, cool lyrics and booty shakin’ beat are self-explanatory. The shortest song on Shake, ‘Maryland Ice Cream’ is 49 seconds of awesome. I can’t decide if it is suppose to be sweet or creepy, but whichever way it’s intended is cool with me. Appropriately tying up the 6 song EP is the final track ‘Follow Through (Hidden)’ which brings together all of the best qualities from each song. It makes you want to dance, it’s dreamy, it’s dark, it’s sexy and like all of Shake, It’s catchy as hell. This short and sweet EP brings those perfect beautiful spring days to whatever season you’re in. From beginning to end Shake is cohesive, fun and energetic. Though the EP is great on its own I feel like it is not quite as strong as Diamond Youth’s past records. They lost a little bit of their rawness and didn’t show much change or innovation. Still, they truly are a diamond in the rough… 8/10
Anyone who has gotten the chance to attend a concert at Schubas Tavern in Chicago, knows how much of a treat it is. A perfectly sized venue, just intimate enough were you feel completely immersed in the overall experience and last Saturday, I got the chance to get up close and personal with the indie pop group Gardens & Villa as they made their stop in the city. Unfortunately for the California natives, this particular tour date happened to coincide with a beginning of March snowstorm. Go figure! Luckily for Chicagoans, there were plenty of hot new tunes, fresh off of the band’s latest release, to keep everyone warm.
It didn’t take long for the energy in the room to start rising. The opening band, Waterstrider, somehow managed to cram all five of their members onto the small stage that was already crowded with two drum sets (three, if you count the congas) as well as various other equipment set up for each band. As soon as Waterstrider began their set, it was clear to see why Gardens & Villa chose them to bring along on a national tour. Their sound was light, fun, and bursting with a quirky energy that put a smile on the face of each and every audience member. At multiple points throughout the set, lead singer and guitarist Nate Salman apologized for his vocal quality, claiming that he was losing his voice but had he said nothing, it would have been nearly impossible to notice any issues. The immediate comparison my mind drew upon hearing him sing was to Thom Yorke. The funny thing about that is that if you looked at him just right, Salman also ever-so-slightly looked like a young Thom Yorke, as well. Overall an impressive set with creative instrumentation that was varied and playful. The ended their time on stage with a cover of a Little Dragon song, asking for audience participation from those familiar with the tune.
After a wonderful start, it was finally time for the whole reason fans had braved the downpour of snow. As the lights grew dim, the crowd cheered with anticipation. The fog machines were working overtime as colorful stage lights illuminated the venue. The band climbed onstage and immediately started in. Frontman Chris Lynch reached for his flute bag (yes, I said flute blag) and grabbed his woodwind tool upon which he began the intro to the first track off of Dunes, Domino. Even more pleasing then the soothing notes of the flute was hearing Lynch’s voice live and gaining the assurance that Gardens & Villa are a band that sound just as impressive live as they do on their LP’s. Behind the band members were two long LED screens that would play various loops of highly colorful imagery and, at times, random people dancing right along with their music. It is always appreciated when a group takes that extra step to make sure their show is as entertaining visually as it is audibly.
The first half of the show consisted of mainly new material; material that might possibly be even stronger than their original stuff. proving this point was the surrounding crowd, who were all already so familiar with the new tracks that they were belting out each word along with Lynch. This being said, the band didn’t neglect old hits like ‘Thorn Castles’, ‘Black Hills’, and ‘Spacetime’. One of the most memorable points in the night was another song that began with Lynch reaching for his trusty flute bag. As he played the intro to the song, the crowd exploded with approval at the realization that it was the band’s highly popular cover of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Gypsy’.
The sound was impeccable, the energy was high, and something tells me this was a night that Chicago Gardens & Villa fans will never forget. Those who braved the elements that night were rewarded with a show more than worth the 12 dollar tickets. Dunes was already proof enough that Gardens & Villa are constantly evolving and improving. Getting the opportunity to see them live was just more proof that these are highly talented musicians with a long and exciting career ahead of them.