Gem Club - Breakers

It's sometimes the emptiest music that has the most heart. It's easiest to relate to emptiness - there's nothing really to interpret; it's just empty. It's up to you to add emotion into it.

The debut record from Gem Club, entitled Breakers, is the perfect example of that phenomenon. The 2011 record's sound consists of the dreamiest pianos and sweet strings that back Christopher Barnes' sweet indie voice. It's a very gentle record, introspective all the while laying down some heavy meanings.

The first impression you get of the record is the brilliant 'Twins,' a tragic admittance of Barnes' twin who died at childbirth. The lyrics wistfully croon "The wind shook the kiss from your mouth / Before I could learn whose twin I was" in a pretty and gentle voice. Beautiful piano chords simply but powerfully ring out as the gentle violin sings quietly above the track. This song, like many others, is written with brevity but with much thought. It's full of amazing metaphors for death that resonate with meaning beyond the purpose of the song itself.

The best part of the record is undoubtedly its lyrics. The track 'Lands' faces utter hopelessness, Barnes and Kristen Drymala singing together in a tragic duet as the slow drumbeat emulates a heartbeat. The pianos ring gently and darkly as pretty synths and atmosphere build up. The lyrics tell the haunting tale of someone who has lost the most important part of their life: their lover. The narrator faces severe depression, and the song seems to be about the choice to end it all. Barnes quietly cries "I feel you are the one whose moving beneath me  / Are there riders coming through the dark," as the everlasting presence of the narrator's lover continues to haunt them. After clinging to it for so long, the presence leaves, the lines "There is no more communication / I'm building lovers in our bed," revealing their reluctance to let go. The song ends quietly and as darkly as it persisted, the piano growing with the slightest intensity before fading out with the hauntingly memorialization of the narrator's final moments: "I feel no real danger / I'm filled with desire / The back of my head split wide open / And I saw the look of lands changing / Are there riders coming through the dark."

'Red Arrow' follows it through is just as powerfully, a slightly more convicted track detailing the release from life. Love was everything to the narrator of this track, and it was tragically taken away from them. The standout of this track is moreso the incredibly simple and powerful instrumental and the backing vocals that hauntingly resonate at the back of the track. The album slowly evolves into one that seeks hope to fill it's empty void. 'I Heard The Party' is the narrator's attempt at finding purpose, but the burden of his emptiness is too great; he cannot find happiness even when in the face of it. There's reminiscing in 'Tanagers' as Barnes sings in a very introspective manner. There's something about the symbolism of horses that Barnes can't seem to escape, yet it provides strong emotions to the tracks it is mentioned in. 'Lands' speaks of "riders" as they come to take him away to the next life, the metaphor providing a strong image of deliverance. In 'Tanagers,' the horses act as a message for hope; the memory of them gave the narrator something to want to return to. The horses gave them emotion.

The album ends on powerful notes. '252' is a song that has too strong interpretations: the narrator is in deep love, or the narrator's lover is diagnosed with cancer. In the cancer timeline, the two involved struggle with how the gravity of the situation effects their lives. The constant hospital visits paired with the heartbreaking thought that every meeting could be the last, Barnes blaming "the cells of this body [that] have all lost their memory... This terrible anatomy / Will surely get the best of me" for his sorrows. This meaning coincides with the story of love (how being deeply in love can effectively damage your own life through obsession), both meanings brought together by the lines "Confused by each other / To work out of order / And I hate that they require / The need to be together... Maybe they'd grow in someone else / Watch as they grow in someone else." The album ends beautifully and calmly in 'In Wavelengths' as if to submit to all of the pain and suffering that the narrator has been the victim of. It's one final defeat, and it feels like it. In the end, they come to terms with reality and let it take them, whether for better or for worse.

Breakers is like what Sufjan Stevens would sound like if his music was based solely around ethereal pianos and tragic orchestras. Every track on this record is it's own 'Fourth Of July,' the strength of each song expressed through its meaning. It's a depressive, challenging, and empty record, but in its emptiness it finds power. It draws emotion from the rawest places. Gem Club's debut is one of the strongest out there, but it's incredible how it makes so much out of nothing. Tragedy can be channeled into the most beautiful art.

Favorite Tracks: Lands, Red Arrow, Black Ships, 252

Least Favorite Tracks: Breakers, Tanagers

Rating: 94 / 100

Pascal Pinon - Sundur

Iceland is a place of many wonders. If you haven't learned of its magic from post-rock legends Sigur Rós, perhaps Pascal Pinon can provide a more accessible gateway into that. The Icelandic indie folk duo's third record Sundur is just that, caked with a pop sweetness shrouded with wonder.

The sounds of Iceland are unique. Pascal Pinon borrows harmonies from the likes of Björk to build haunting melodies that are hard to ignore; sweet harmonies make the opening track 'Jósa & Lotta' as they dance above sweet piano and ambience. Piano plays an important roll on the record - its atmosphere is a big part of what makes the songs sound mysterious. Key in to the piano on 'Spider Light', an instrumental focussing on the relationship of a metallic beat and somber piano. The sound of the piano itself throughout the record is longing and reminiscent, allowing for it to sound barren and cold, yet surrounded in mystery - the essence of Iceland.

Piano isn't the only thing that builds the character of Sundur, though. 'Skammdegi', a song sung in Icelandic, uses a clean guitar to add atmosphere instead, and a Sufjan Stevens synth to help it. Acoustic guitar does the same in '53', the piano taking a minor role in this one as acoustic guitar and vocals on top of distant electronics take you into a dreamy oblivion.

Through all the sadness this album may have, there are moments of happiness. 'Orange' may have that familiar sadness, but its recognizable, almost tangible. Its a sadness that's known to us all, but what it means will change. That's bittersweet, at least. 'Forest' has a poppier vibe than much of the rest of the album, dinky beats on top of a tangy synth lends itself to sound generally happy. The rest of the song doesn't sound like its jumping for joy, but it has a lot more hope than much of the rest of the record.

There are moments on the record that provide some freshness, too, albeit, most are minor. The dark sounds of 'Twax' seems like a sunset on a normal day in a small town of Iceland. The ambience of synths and xylophone that pair with a bunch of different sounds make this song sound uneasy - windchimes, bells, and more can be heard in this song, which transitions into a song with the same setting and windchimes, 'Babies', which ends up with sounds that seem to spiral out. 'Fuglar' is an odd track, and one of the album's most experimental. It's organ and brass intro starts nice but as electronics try to mesh with the harmonies, it's a bit off putting. It loops sweetly but lacks cohesion that brought together a lot of the record. 

Sundur is the sound of Iceland is a poppier light. Sigur Rós' barren soundscapes show the isolation of Iceland's creations, while Pascal Pinon show its welcoming emptiness. It's all a familiar adventure. Sundur isn't perfect, but it's understanding, and that's all you could want from Iceland.

Favorite Tracks: Spider Light, Skammdegi, Orange, 53

Least Favorite Track: Fuglar

Rating: 75 / 100

Young The Giant - Home Of The Strange

If you're looking for a classic indie experience, Young The Giant has you covered. Their newest record Home Of The Strange is the band's third full-length effort, and sees them continuing to polish their sound into a more refined, indie rock specialty.

The good thing about this album is that there isn't a low point of it. There are periods where things mellow out and aren't as interesting, but there's no definitively bad part of the record. It has lots of groove within, found within signature tracks like 'Something To Believe In' - which has something untangibly funky going on with the chorus (which may either be the guitar or the backing vocals; I can't tell) on top of an almost hip-hop beat - and the energetic 'Silvertongue'. If nothing else, this album is definitely fun. Lots of songs will just get you vibing and moving about, dancing around to them; see the fun guitar licks in 'Mr. Know-It-All' and the grooviness of 'Jungle Youth'. 'Jungle' is a big track, distorted guitars and effected vocals adding color to it before it explodes in a big indie rock flavor during its jam ending. The eponymous 'Home Of The Strange' takes the album out on a feel-good, energetic note. A big note to end on.

There's another, calmer side to this record. It starts off this way, the tragically relatable love song 'Amerika' calmly beginning the record as it builds to a sweet ending. 'Elsewhere' is a quieter yet still funky song, sounding like something like Arctic Monkeys meets David Bowie (who is coincidentally namedropped in the following track). It's a nostalgic song, and the ending is almost chilling with how reflective the vocals are delivered by Sameer Gadhia. It's written in a very introspective way that feels very familiar. The lyrics on this album are often times simple in the best of ways: see the narrative in 'Amerika', the Greek references of 'Titus Was Born', and the silliness of 'Mr. Know-It-All'. 'Repeat' builds really nicely from its acoustic beginning to its creamy ending. Young The Giant channels their Sufjan Stevens influences in 'Art Exhibit', albeit with a more rock demeanor by the end of the track.

Indie rock never sounded so groovy. Young The Giant honed their indie sound and injected funk and soul into it, providing for a fun listen. Home Of The Strange is a great listen; by no means a masterpiece, but a great record all the same.

Favorite Tracks: Jungle Youth, Something To Believe In, Home Of The Strange

Least Favorite Tracks: Repeat, Nothing's Over

Rating: 70 / 100