By Ashley Zimmerman
By Dana Krangel
By John Hood
By Ashley Zimmerman
By David Von Bader
By Sayre Berman
By Steve Brennan
By Ashley Zimmerman
And as with what you wear, so goes with what you listen to.
Like the season itself, your autumn soundtrack should possess a combination of palpable longing and hesitant expectation. Avoid the sun-bright razz of summertime jams; instead, think the dusky, nuanced Harvest Moon, Mazzy Star, and the Arcade Fire. To nail the right sense of succulent melancholy for a fittingly fall-ish listening session, dig into any of these recent indie releases:
San Diego's Castanets made a minor splash this time last year with Cathedral, their debut. Led by songwriter Ray Raposa (he who tested out of high school and took to the open road via Greyhound), the loosely structured Castanets features members of other potent SD bands like Pinback, Rocket from the Crypt, and Tristeza. The term experimental Americana has been used to describe the group's eerie, minimalist excursions, and First Light's Freeze (Asthmatic Kitty) fits the connotation. Imagine Ichabod Crane's Sleepy Hollow house band playing a Winter Solstice 'shroom harvest and you'll be drifting close to Castanets' somber psychedelica. Raposa's boyish voice is low and distant, leaning in past the omniscient narration of his lyrics to intimate vague profundities. That thin, sturdy voice is the handrail that keeps the listener upright through descents into groovy dissonance, speckled digitalization, agoraphobic dub, and lantern-lit acoustic echoes. "Friend, I cannot befriend you true/In searching for my light in you/In seeking out its endless reflections of no," he intones on the dark banjo stomp "Good Friend, Yr Hunger." The buzzing, fuzzy guitar freakout that obliterates the mantralike harmonies and drum-machine patter of "No Voice Was Raised" is the album's culmination, a noisy, obtrusive storm beautiful in its brutality.
Close to Castanets in its cinematic flush and splayed instrumentation is NYC trio Tarantula AD. But where Castanets keep their auger pointed into the Great North Woods, Tarantula AD wanders some distant wilderness like a band of mystic Israelites. The hyphenationally inclined might call Book of Sand (Kemado), the band's second full-length, "world-folk-chamber-metal." Not me, though. I'd prefer to describe it as The Ten Commandments soundtrack played by ambitious Parsons grads with a flair for tasteful heshing. Arena-slaying electric guitars and drums have never been so well paired with cello and piano. Mostly instrumental and classically oriented, Book of Sand yields an absorbing, almost narrative progression. Middle Eastern modalities, birdcalls, effected bagpipes, harmonium, and indefinable electronic incantations add palpable atmosphere. After 30-some minutes of thrilling, meandering ruminations, the band coalesces into full-on gypsy jam on "Palo Borracho." And when Devendra Banhart shows up on "The Century Trilogy III: The Fall," a smoldering, epic dirge that closes the album, his weird, giddy warble stands out like a burning bush. You'll be hard-pressed to find anything more original this season or this year.
Speaking of Devendra Banhart, if you haven't snatched up his Cripple Crow (XL), you're missing a phenomenon in the making. By now, you've probably heard the hype and hyperbole on this un-pin-downable singer/songwriter: bearded woodland fairy, resurrected '60s hippie troubadour, Jesus-like savior with Mansonesque charisma and a weird fascination with young boys. Whatever it's all details in the face of the brilliant Cripple Crow. Banhart's first two albums consisted of just his inimitable Billie Holliday quiver and a gently strummed guitar, but Crow packs much broader instrumentation and the warming, expressive palette that comes with it. The album veers from Tropicalia-inflected, Spanish language hip-shake to earnest, fingerpicked folk to wiry garage rock, all bound by Banhart's gently insistent melodies and unpredictable humor. Like a laughing Buddha, he possesses a sense of wink-and-nudge joy in whatever he does, and though his endgame is unclear, the rules he plays by are all his own. Even in its self-indulgence (at 75 minutes, Crow is about 15 too long), the album settles comfortably like an old, unusual friend, someone you always knew would create something special though you never knew how. Banhart wants you to sit by his moonlight campfire and sing songs about wolves and butterflies and war and growing up and tranny pedophiles. Crow is the songbook he offers, and there's love and laughter in it.
One of the more anticipated releases this year is actually a rerelease from '04. Due to spotlight-stealing from Arts & Crafts labelmates and fellow Montrealers Broken Social Scene, Stars' Set Yourself on Fire was originally received with little fanfare. A&C put the album out again this past summer, and it's finally getting the attention it deserves. With pristine electro-pop production that's become one of the hallmarks of the "Montreal sound," Fire is one of those rare, start-to-finish albums that demands full attention thanks to its cohesive yet diverse sound. Lead Star Torquil Campbell and co-vocalist Amy Millan battle for emotional supremacy; heart-rending, carefully crafted songs are less about love than its inevitable loss. Another hallmark of the aforementioned Montreal sound is an admirable sense of pretentiousness, and in its electronic burnish, horn and string crescendos, and occasionally profound thematic scope, Stars nails that poignantly, beautifully. Which, in this dim, skeletal season, is a wonderful thing. It's warmhearted music for cold, sleepless nights, perfect to wrap up in as changing weather creeps deep inside. Even if you live in South Florida.