2011 Indie Rock Music Reviews by Richard Morales

26 Nov, 2012

Richard Morales: Chachi

Letter from the Music Editor

Here we are again with another year-end recommendation list. 2011 was very good to indie rock bands, and we’ve had some stellar releases last year; such as Panda Bear, Kurt Vile, Fleet Foxes, and yes, everyone loved the new Bon Iver. Still, I didn’t see many personal favorites get much notoriety which is why we take this time and elaborate on a few that should be of some consideration. As usual, not only are established acts featured, but also some local groups that are making quite a splash in their respective regions across the U.S., and naturally Dig In Magazine would like to suggest that indie fans take note. With that said, I hope you enjoy the list!

Cheers,

Richard Morales

For music inquires, email Richard at: richard.a.morales@gmail.com

Crankshaft LP Cover

Crankshaft and the Gear Grinders – Junkyard Rhythm (SlabTown)

The second full-length Crankshaft album is quite a step forward for this Minnesota bluesman in terms of both songwriting and production. Although Junkyard Rhythm employs the same straight-ahead, heavy blues sound that many fans have come to love, what makes the album accessible is the backing band that lead singer Alex Larson has acquired. The addition of such versatile musicians seems to allow Crankshaft to stretch out vocally, and energize songs that would have sounded subdued if played in his usual one-man band setting. Bookending the album with instrumental tracks is gutsy for any band that features a vocalist, but what it shows here is Crankshaft’s confidence in his guitar skills. In that sense, the listener enters—and leaves—Junkyard Rhythm with the knowledge that every song in this collection is rooted in this ubiquitous blues instrument, and that is exactly what Crankshaft wants you to understand. It is true that the best way enjoy Crankshaft by attending a live show, but this album comes pretty close to what you can expect in terms of feel and flavor.

Key Tracks:

Junkyard Rhythm

Scrap Collectin’ Man

Neighbor Boys

Devotchka LP Cover

Devotchka – 100 Lovers (Epitaph)

Many have criticized Devotchka for either not being able to expand beyond their repertoire, which already includes a wide-range of influences, or not being able to record a disc that is fully representational of their astounding live performances. Although there are no dramatic musical surprises on 100 Lovers, there is plenty of quality songwriting and interesting dynamics going on. The dreamy opener, “The Alley” sets the lush tone for Nick Urata’s rich vocals which Devotchka fans have become so familiar with; and it is that kind familiarity that makes the album work so well. From the string arrangement in “The Common Good” to the horns in “Contrabanda,” Devotchka has built a kinship with such a variety of forms that they could now pull from just about any style and make it their own. The thing that will ultimately determine the album’s longevity is not that certain songs stand out, but that it is consistently enjoyable, which is something other bands could learn from.

Key Tracks:

100 Other Lovers

Exhaustible

Bad Luck Heels

Little Gold

Little Gold – Weird Freedom (Loud Baby Sounds)

It’s always interesting when an album comes across to hit you at the right time, bringing about numerous listens, and then later, enjoyment whenever you go back to it. Last year, Little Gold’s Weird Freedom did just that. It’s not a lengthy effort, ten songs clocking in a just over thirty minutes, but each song that Christian DeRoeck and company perform is wrought with emotion and intermingled with American roots. This is not say that the music is heavily sentimental; rather the raspy vocals, light guitar crunch, and steady drumming keep Weird Freedom sounding new and interesting. The best parts of the album come around the middle portion when the band begins to come out of its comfort zone and really rocks out; from the driving “The Kid’s Got Heart” to the experimental interlude of “(the freed wolf).” By the time we get to the exquisite closer, “Bird’s Eye,” we understand the vibe Little Gold was trying to establish all along. Even though it may feel uneven, this album is a step in the right direction for these guys from Brooklyn, who appear to be moving toward something worthwhile.

Key Tracks:

Mike Swan

Oh, Dad!

Bird’s Eye

MIddle Brother LP Cover

Middle Brother – Middle Brother (Partisan)

Three very talented songwriters brought together at 2010′s SXSW resulted in one of the finest albums of 2011. Taylor Goldsmith, Matthew Vasquez, and John McCauley have their own respective bands, but in collaborating for Middle Brother’s debut album gives alt-country/indie rock fans good reason to rejoice. Each member gets a chance to front the band throughout this twelve song collection, which is a refreshing way of listening to an album since there is little possibility of ever getting tired from repetition. The song structures are not in any way complex, nor were they ever meant to be, because the emotional roller coaster the listener is put on makes up for any simplicity, either lyrically or musically. The real joy of Middle Brother is in the contrast of personalities; McCauley’s admiration for roots rock, Goldsmith’s introspective ballads, and Vasquez’s soulful crooning shows that diverse talents can actually work if the overall objective is to make great music and have fun while doing it. In this case, the ones who really benefit are the fans.

Key Tracks:

Theater

Me, Me, Me

Million Dollar Bill

Explosions in the Sky LP Cover

Explosions in the Sky – Take Care, Take Care, Take Care (Temporary Residence)

It’s hard to believe it has been four years since the last Explosions in the Sky album. I remember ten years ago thinking they were representative of the future of indie rock (along with God Speed You! Black Emperor and Sigur Ros) and loved each release. It’s nice to know they are still performing with no signs of slowing down, because an Explosions in the Sky album release is truly an event. The Texas sun must have been good to these guys because Take Care, Take Care, Take Care is nothing short of amazing, which is something people have come to expect when a band takes long durations between albums. Their self-induced “sabbatical” has not inhibited the band from continuing to create surreal dreamscapes, and this album will bring you in and lull you back and forth with feedback, reverb, pulsating drums, and raising crescendos that may or may not hit. “Last Known Surroundings” and “Let Me Back In” are definite highlights, but it is everything in between that makes the mood spectacular especially when drawing from the band’s personal exchanges. Through continuous listens Take Care, Take Care, Take Care will have you discovering new insights, and for a short period, bring serenity to your consciousness.

Key Tracks:

Human Qualities

Postcard from 1952

Let Me Back In

Grassfight

Grassfight – Icon EP

New York City’s Grassfight puts out a surprising amount of sound for being a trio. Their debut EP finds them at the beginning of what could be a promising career if they can expand their fan base beyond the Joy Division fanatics. But whatever incarnation critics are calling their style these days (shoegaze, post-punk, noise-pop), what Grassfight have is the potential and capability to grow as artists and songwriters, and eventually reject the labels new bands get stuck with early in their careers. The Icon EP is a nice introduction to a band still in its formative stages, but they are amazingly tight and obviously eager to prove themselves. The best example of where this band is destined to go is in the final track, “Streetlamps.” Singer Nathan Forster’s baritone vocals and guitar playing fit nicely in establishing the overall mood, but it is in drummer Mark Demiglio’s innovative accompaniment and bassist Tasmi New’s subtle harmonies that show how writing more collectively mature songs will make this band a force to be reckoned with outside of New York. Keep an eye out for future releases because Grassfight is off to a hell of a start, and from the sound of it, they will definitely have something vital to contribute to indie rock.

Key Tracks:

All We Do Is Count

Never You Mind

Streetlamps

Manchester Orchestra

Manchester Orchestra – Simple Math (Columbia)

Manchester Orchestra has been getting a bit of slack for making a highly ambitious album which can come across as being self-indulgent at times. Of course with the array of strings (“Leave It Alone”), sing-a-long chants (“Pensacola”), and even the inclusion of a children’s choir (“Virgin”), any album would be misconstrued as excessive. Still, strip down all the theatrics and one is left with a great collection of songs, and that is something that builds masterpieces. So where many “concept albums” get muddled with grandeur, Simple Math is aware of its limitations. The added instrumentation and stylized production does not necessarily inhibit the songs but rather accent the point that singer/songwriter Andy Hull is trying to make; which is that we follow him on a musical journey throughout his various influences. It is an expansive yet melodic journey which adds depth to the growing indie rock landscape.

Key Tracks:

Pensacola

Pale Black Eye

Simple Math

The Antlers

The Antlers – Burst Apart (Frenchkiss)

As a sleeker, more accessible follow-up to 2009′s Hospice, Burst Apart finds the Antlers moving into territory that now presents their music as a total sum of its parts. On their previous record we got to hear how the members contributed to songs from which the groundwork was already laid out by main songwriter, Peter Silberman. Their new release, which allows additional members Michael Lerner and Darby Cicci equal input, is a major step forward and has created a truly collective indie album; from the writing and recording to the production. The band’s foray into electronic music (which sets to overall tone of the album) does not damage the songwriting, but rather enhances it, making the music interesting and enjoyable without sounding repetitive or excessive. Instrumentally, we find the band work each song to its full potential, and vocally we discover Silberman has become a confident and capable singer. In all, given the group’s history, they could easily have taken the route of further developing concept albums of despair and sorrow thus catering to a specific market, but that would have been continuing down a road that would have quickly made them irrelevant. Here, Burst Apart works much better as simply a collection of songs exploring the full range of human emotions—this will inevitably touch even more fans that are sure to uncover continued rewards with every listen.

Key Tracks:

No Widows

Rolled Together

Hounds

About the author

Cindy Maram

Cindy Maram is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Dig In Magazine. She is an accredited film journalist for Sundance Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival, Mill Valley Film Festival, San Francisco International Film Festival and CAAMFest, as well as writer, vlogger, designer, digital, online & social media marketer. She possesses a B.A from UC Davis and a M.A. in Mass Communications + Popular Culture Studies emphasis in Film/Marketing/Writing from Cal State Fullerton.

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