Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Freelance Whales - Weathervanes

Sometimes I get the feeling that many people underestimate the importance of having a good band name. In the 21st century overload society a bold, funny, or just plain unusual name can be the difference between a band that goes viral or one that flounders in obscurity, especially for indie would-be breakouts. Odd and audacious band names have become a trademark of indie as a reaction to mass-marketable mainstream pop, but also, I would argue, because of the rampant saturation of the internet marketplace. Obviously a group's music is itself a differentiating factor from competitors, but with radio play out of the question, the task of grabbing a potential listener's attention can come down to the band's name, especially in word-of-mouth, grassroots marketing situations. It's literally impossible to listen to every worthwhile band these days, even with all the blogs, music videos, and internet radio services available, which is why I'm so thankful that Freelance Whales, a new, relevant, group bursting with potential, had the good judgment to choose such a memorable moniker that ultimately led me to give them a listen.

Weathervanes, Freelance Whales August 2009 debut album, is surprisingly polished and articulate for a band that's only existed since 2008. Their sound is already definite and constructed, and yet weaves together disparate elements and instruments with a flair not unlike Mr. Sufjan Stevens. You've got banjo, synth, glockenspiel, harmonium, cello, and whatever a waterphone is. Don't question the variety, though; it works. Judah Dadone's vocals are gentle and sublime and subliminal, and you get the impression that he has legitimate singing talent, not just on-record sound, which is dishearteningly rare these days.

"Generator ^ First Floor" and "Generator ^ Second Floor" are the "reference points" of the album. Both showcase the band's skill for intricate arrangements while maintaining an eclectic drive. "First Floor" sets the mood for the rest of the songs, and "Second Floor" comes second-to-last to draw the elements back together again in recapitulation. There are a few instrumental tracks interspersed between the other songs; normally I have a pretty low tolerance for that (Phoenix are an offender, as are Muse, Coldplay, The Killers, and even the sacred Neutral Milk Hotel). If an individual track cannot stand on it's own, why include it at all? But at least here there's some novelty with such diverse instrumentation and arrangement.

The reason I say this band is poised to break out is that there's a maturity present in their recording. The songs work together, there's a deliberate presence, and everything feels smooth, rounded off. On so many albums, what could be a great listening experience stutters and falls in the chasms between irrelevant songs (take Lady Gaga's The Fame, a pop standout suffocated by its single-oriented nature and lack of unifying motive). It's so, so easy to write ten songs and record an album, as opposed to writing an album and recording ten songs, especially on a first outing, especially for an independent band. That's why Freelance Whales shows promise.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Owl City - Ocean Eyes

There's definitely something to be said for catchy music. The instant buzz you get from a song that zips through your synapses is a powerful thing. It could be argued that pop music, from the beginning, has mainly been concerned with creating songs that stay in the listener's head for as long as possible. Even before the audio recording revolution, musical Darwinism kept only the catchiest tunes alive in the ears of the masses.

This mentality is partly to blame for the explosion of DIY music-makers on YouTube and the Internet in general, peddling their hooks and jockeying for listeners. While perhaps equally noteworthy is the new movement of independent artists intentionally going against the stereotypical made-for-radio sound, most of what we hear today belongs to that pursuit-of-pleasantness school so often associated with mainstream pop.

Adam Young is one such artist. His project, Owl City (or O-Town, as my pal Mitch likes to call it) is the most recent band to conquer my iTunes Recently Played list with a campaign consisting solely of electronic beats, blips, and synths. Ocean Eyes, Young's latest album, is practically a how-to tape on creating instantly-appealing songs with just a basement full of tech. Think The Postal Service, but more accessible and more teenager. There's even some Imogen Heap in there.

Now, one of the things I've noticed about bands with catchy music is that the catchier their songs are, the more homogeneous their body of work becomes. For example: The Beach Boys, or Mates of State. I haven't listened to all of Young's albums, but judging solely from his most recent two, Maybe I'm Dreaming and Ocean Eyes, the threat is definitely there. Still, with music this bright and downright enjoyable, it's hard to fault him for sticking with a formula that works and has won him a cache of (mostly female) fans.

I recommend Owl City if you're looking for some feel-good songs to round out your library, but don't expect anything groundbreaking. Not all music should be "deep", or even "moving", and Adam Young is an excellent alternative to the pop drivel usually served up to fulfill that role.