A rude awakening always comes before the spiritual awakening, even for musical mystic decker. Brandon Decker has toured ceaselessly for nearly ten years since the release of his debut in 2009, with multiple albums dropped along the way. Born to Wake Up is a transcendent soundscape from a man who listeners only thought they knew. Reborn, a better man has emerged from the ashes. His sound has evolved along with his spirit.
Signed to the prestigious Royal Potato Family record label, Brandon Decker has brought his Sedona, Arizona, psychedelic folk to life. Adding to the ambient surreal aura is cover art from Brandon Paul Shupe Art. The stunning artwork blends desert psychedelia and possibly some pea soup aesthetic into the blender of creativity. Quinn Murphy at Hamster Labs in Phoenix, Arizona helped make the artwork and layout come to life. This album, produced by Brandon Decker & Dylan Ludwig and recorded at Raven Sound Studio in Prescott, Arizona, has an added essence infused by final mastering from Dan Coutant (Caterpillars, Sherwood, among a host of others) at Sun Room Audio in Cornwall, New York.
The first sounds of “No Beginning No End” opens the ten-song album with an expansive echo of brilliance. Some facts are clear: like a desert night, each sound is magnified, every nuance vibrating with meaning. With Brandon Decker on guitars, vocals, and percussion joined by Dylan Ludwig on guitars, synthesizers, and percussion, a skeleton of a symphony has been created. Amber Johnson (keyboards), Andrew Bates (electric bass), Zirque Bonner (upright bass), Charlie Foldesh (drums), Shawnee Snaketail (drums), and Meliza Jackson (guitar) are the full orchestra of sound that helps create the rich lushness of this album.
Resting in the mystery is “The Strawman,” with an wide, cinematic feel; a hollow echo of lyrics create a haunting, soul-jarring connection to one of the most strikingly brilliant vocals ever felt by this troubadour.
“Burnin Grass” is a tribute to Tom Petty that was also the lead single from Born to Wake Up. It is a solid homage to the great songwriter in vibe and lyricism, with a splash of desert folk style. Shifting gears, “The Garden” has an eclectic cool with a bass line that rolls. The intimacy of the sound’s contradiction with the lyrics is genius. In the past, Brandon Decker has written more from the dark side, a perspective that dead ends in many ways. Hope is heard on this album, with love and light breaking through introducing life anew.
The driving groove of “The Matador” is animalistic, thanks to the abundance of percussion, and the primal feel reflects the fact that this man is connected to the land. Clearly, this an elevation of an already talented artist and that brilliance is heard lyrically. Bright vocally, this soars in triumph, an awareness that the truth is a freedom that cannot be given without sacrifice. The title track “Born to Wake Up” follows. With guitar work that feels like a loving hug, each lyric is a positive reinforcement to clear each speed bump in life, big or small, in order to become the best human being possible. Is this a new Decker, a little road weary and more introspective?
Sometimes the best new music connects a listener to memories of the past, great albums seared into the soul. “Smudge” has an aura of The Beatles with a vibe that brings to mind the psychedelic aesthetic of cuts from Revolver, Rubber Soul, and the White Album as do all of the closing songs. Written with his son, “Mexico” is simply beautiful and in many ways reminiscent of “Beautiful Boy” by John Lennon; simple, heartfelt love of father and son. Life is celebrated with breathtaking honesty. Adding to the magic is the voice of Katherine Byrnes; heart-stopping love seems to radiate from this cut unconsciously. Knowing that the songwriter and his son wrote this song is that much more powerful, knowing the bond the two share.
An evolution has occurred for Brandon Decker. Closing out the album with “The Saint” as a tribute to his grandmother, the man has certainly shifted his perspective. Now his ascension to another plane as a songwriter has begun, more open and authentic spiritually than on any of his previous seven releases. A bookend to close the album, “No End, No Beginning” harkens in the dawn, a chapter in the musical life of a man devoted to his son, his art, and his spirit.–Lisa Whealy
1. “Dancing” – Young Readers. This beautiful whisper-folk tune comes with a huge history: this song was originally written years ago, before a Kickstarter campaign, a cancer diagnosis, a cancer recovery, and a return to music. Jordan Herrera’s fragile voice and subtle determination are beautiful on their own, but they have a lot more gravitas when you know the story attached. As a long-time fan of Young Readers (and one of the funders of that cancer-battered Kickstarter), I’m thrilled to hear Young Readers back in the game.
2. “About” – Another Michael. Anyone who starts off their track with found sound and a blaring organ is going somewhere unusual. This Topshelf Records crew demonstrates that they leans toward the quiet end of that label’s spectrum with this artsy, clever, propulsive indie-pop tune. Fans of mid-era Death Cab for Cutie (Transatlanticism, especially), the Shins, and other early ’00s indie-pop will love this.
3. “Go With You” – Mike Edel. Absorbs the best vibes of ’80s synth pop and ’00s indie-pop to come up with a smooth, soft, charming, contemporary indie-pop jam. There’s a lot to love: Edel’s voice and vocal lines, the clanging ’80s guitar, the delicate piano, the wispy female echo/harmony, the punchy drums, just all of it.
4. “Prism” – Small Leaks Sink Ships. If you’re into high-drama pop of any era, you’ll be way into this. This track falls right in the chronology of The Moody Blues to Styx to Queen to all of ’80s synth-pop to My Chemical Romance and the like. Synths! Big drums! Dramatic, soaring vocals! Quiet/loud transitions! It’s all here for you.
5. “Synesthesia” – Polychrome. This electro-pop jam is full of twinkly synths, breathy vocals, triumphant piano, and charging guitar. Yet the breathy vocals are really the star–the rest of the mix is turned down for space, and the result is a dreamy track that could have been a blaster with a different mix. It’s a testament to the vision of the artist that this version won out when another one easily could have–this one is immensely satisfying.
6. “Morning is Made” – Hush Kids. Weepies fans, rejoice! This has a little more mature gravitas to it, but at its core this is a softly-fingerpicked acoustic-pop song with a heartwarming female/male duet. The softly rising horns in the arrangement seal the deal for me. There’s going to be a lot of fans of Hush Kids very soon.
7. “Hometown Honey” – The Herbert Bail Orchestra. If you manage to effectively use a theremin and a bevy of mournful trumpets in the same alt-country tune, you’re going to end up on Independent Clauses. Bail’s vocals are engaging and the songwriting is strong, but it’s the stuff around the main thrust of the tune that really sells the song.
8. “Poor Stuart” – Ben Somers. It takes a really compelling instrumental folk performance to snag my ear, because I’m not just looking for a solid traditional tune. I want to hear something that’s trad but also contemporary; something that sets the song apart. This tune has a lot of vintage in it, but there’s modern elements and approaches in the melodic lines that give it a fresh voice–Somers is not just recreating an era, he’s updating it for the modern ear. The touches and flourishes are subtle, but they’re there. Strong work.
9. “Through the Atmosphere” – Dusty Stray. Here’s a walking-speed, wide-eyed, low-key folk tune the likes of which Bonnie Prince Billy is great at. Stray settles some subtle instrumental touches around the edges of the calm vocals and fingerpicking–clunking bass hand on the piano, fluttering treble hand, delicate auxiliary keys, etc. But basically I imagine a guy walking by a river and serenading whoever he passes by.
10. “Eleanora” – baeilou. Adventurous, experimental, dramatic, ominous, and groove-heavy, this cello-and-voice excursion is a wild journey. baeilou has crooning, speak-singing, semi-beatboxing, and more in her diverse vocal performance; the cello is used as treble, bass and percussion. The moods swoop and shift and change without warning. It’s an experience. The sheer inventiveness of this track is worth a listen. Do not expect anything like “Eleanor Rigby.”
Alex Dugan, Mic Vredenburgh, and David Grayson have something to say, and the guys known collectively as Culture Wars are using a self-titled debut EP to do it. The Austin-based trio has been dropped into turbulent times, using that background to make a surrealist splash in five tracks coupled with cinematic visuals.
Each song is topically relevant to the world today. The lyrical subject matter covers greed, dishonesty, vanity, narcissism, and the beat goes on. Tapping Alan Moulder (Arctic Monkeys, The Killers) as producer brings an edge to the music which gives the topics a sonic surge. Completed with mixing by Manny Marroquin (Imagine Dragons, Kanye West), Culture Wars has found a vibe. With Dugan on vocals and electronics, Vrendenburgh on guitar and cello, and Grayson covering drums, this minimalist approach defies the sonic depth produced here. Many of the music videos are directed by Jeremi Mattern and Alex Dugan in the the DIY spirit. Not to be overlooked is the surrealist cover art from Gary Dorsey at Pixel Peach Studios, twisting each lyrical concept into mind blowing graphics. The stage is set to let the music rip.
Culture Wars breathes haunting echoes that flash back to early sounds from The All American Rejects. AAR’s rock was born in Stillwater, Oklahoma, less than twelve hours from Sonic Ranch in El Paso, Texas, where Culture Wars tracked their debut. Great music comes out of unexpected places sometimes. Dugan seems to mirror the vocal delivery style of the Vans Warped Tour headliner and frontman Tyson Ritter from AAR.
“Lies” is a great kick-off to the EP. The song struts, inviting listeners unfamiliar with the boys in the band to join the party. The lyrics seems to fit the current world culture.Dugan, Vredenburgh, and Grayson deliver heavy pop vibes with “Bones” flowing into “Money (Gimme, Gimme)”; each track drives a gritty relevance with current cultural chaos. It’s an electro-music microscope on society–did bands like Talking Heads influence the refrain?
Each song of the EP has been represented in a video, so you can absorb the EP thru Youtube. Visuals play a big part in telling the story of songs like “Hideaway.” That tune peels another layer away of how communication has changed in today’s age of social media. Ending the EP with “Delilah (Tear Me Away)” Culture Wars hits a dance club groove that would make Bowie proud; fun, easy groove flows out here, making a statement with skilled musicianship.
Great music is often born in Austin, Texas, because of the influences of music born nearby. Such is the case with Culture Wars, whose debut self-titled EP was produced by the man who helped give an extra edge to The Killers and Arctic Monkeys. That’s a big deal, but more important is the fact that this trio has talent to match the opportunities that are coming their way. This trio delivers some fresh new pop-rock crackling with echoes of past greats like Bowie blurred in a blender with the best of Warped Tour greats. Poised and ready, Culture Wars has earned a unique spot as an indie pop rock voice today.–Lisa Whealy
1. “A Better Pet” – curtsy. Part of the weirdness that is music blogging (or writing about art in any way, really) is trying to capture something often ineffable in words. There are ways and means and tricks and common practices to try to do this, but sometimes there’s a truly ineffable one. I really like this song by curtsy, and yet it is the type of jangly guitar-rock that I often do not like. Why do I like this one when I don’t like other ones? I have no idea. I can list a few things that stick out, but none of them are the real X factor that makes me think yes: the vocal melodies are good, the recording style is bass-forward (which I love), and the chorus is big and satisfying. All of that together in the exact way they put it together makes it stellar. Here’s to mystery.
2. “Wasted Youth” – Blue Velvet. If you cross the powerhouse melodic punk of The Menzingers with the blitzing enthusiasm of The Vaccines at their most skittish, you’d have this great tune. As those two bands are two of my favorites when it comes to guitar-mashing enthusiasm, I’m basically unable to do anything but love this song.
3. “Old New” – Grandpa Jack. Grandpa Jack’s second single “Old New” from the debut release from the Brooklyn-based old-school rockers is sure to satisfy millennials raised on Led Zeppelin vinyls. Is there room for bands following in the footsteps of Greta Van Fleet? Definitely. In fact, Johnny Storm, Jared Schakper and Matt C. White would be a perfect fit for an “old-timer” throwback rock tour featuring young rock soul. Full of great guitar work and subtly shredding vocals, wrapped up with drums and bass that support the stellar musicianship from the bottom up.–Lisa Whealy
4. “Kyoto Blues” – Alex Tiunaev. This solo piano piece hovers around the edges of several different directions–there’s a strong romantic underpinning, some ambient-inspired sounds in the background, and some calming/new age approaches to the melodicism. It’s hard to find solo piano that espouses a particular vision without becoming mushy or maudlin, but Tiunaev does well to put out a distinctive idea and mood here.
5. “Just Saying” – Tiny Eyes. A lovely entry in the “delicate, formal, Beatles-esque piano ballad” category, this tune has a sleepy vocal performance; a distant, metronomic percussion performance; and lots of charm. Harry Nilsson came to mind, but you have to squint to catch it.
6. “The Road Reversed” – Nathan Bowles. There’s always some ambient, deconstructed folk kicking around in the background of the folk field, whether it’s slowcore people or tape deck experiments or glitchfolk or other things. This tune isn’t quite as deconstructed as some, but there’s a lot of subtlety and repetition in this ten-minute track. It’s a great example of instrumental folk that takes cues from tradition but isn’t slavishly beholden to the tradition, that experiments without losing its core, and that stays interesting even in its long runtime. Great work.
7. “New Ones” – Hollaphonic feat. Aaron Camper. The synth effects here are hugely summery and exciting, while the rhythms and arrangement are bright, fun, and compelling. The song is just over two minutes long–it disappears almost as soon as it arrives. It’s a good way to keep us wanting more/pressing repeat/hoping for remixes.
8. “Just Survive” – The Hope State. Sad songs are par for the course in pop music and especially in this blog, but man this one is a doozy. It’s similar to Strand of Oaks in that a wrenchingly sad story is couched in driving, melodic folk-rock–the sorrow is there, but it’s being strapped to a desire to keep moving. That’s what the title says, and that’s what the music tells–this is how you push through, even when it’s emotionally grueling. If you need some commiseration in deeply-trying-but-still-miserable situations, you’ll find it here: “I am trying my best to get better / my blood’s been clean since we lost our daughter / I’m a wreck / I’m a mess / I will never forgive myself … please don’t give up on me yet.”
9. “(Drinking Is Easy) Living Is Hard” – Mill’s End.Phoenix, Arizona-based country rock band Mill’s End drops “(Drinking Is Easy) Living Is Hard,” with lyrical subject matter that ranges from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to single parenthood to loss. This is a classic country-rock story song, welcoming Alan Clark to the band on guitar. The tune shifts stylistically from longtime lead guitarist Keith Perillo’s approach with a more bluesy vibe. Julissa Ruth adds the perfect touch to this barroom anthem.–Lisa Whealy
There’s a lot of emotions going on in this post, whether from the songs themselves or the emotions they bring out in me. Here’s to the feels.
1. “Knocking” – Basement Revolver. This ballad is utterly astonishing. It is a vulnerable, honest, cathartic track that combines the cavernous spaces of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ quiet work with subtle folk touches and Chrisy Hurn’s knock-out vocals. Hurn sings her heart out on this track, conveying hurt and pain and ultimately redemption. If you’re a Christian, this song will bowl you over–it is the gospel for the broken and hurting. Even if you’re not Christian, even if you’re not religious, the way Hurn and Basement Revolver end this song seems like it would be deeply moving. Highly recommended.
2. “All Affirming” – Lay Low Moon. This lovely full-band folk song touches off a complex set of emotions for me. It’s got a touch of punk-goes-folk in the vocal tone and the sort of arrangement that those early ’00s bands used. That tips off serious nostalgia. The banjo inclusion makes me think of the early ’10s, when folk-pop was having its major moment (more nostalgia). The melancholy piano and vocal lines make me feel sadness, but the sort of sadness that makes me happy. It’s a strong tune that is made even more convincing to me due to my personal musical experiences.
3. “Baby” – Hotel Mira. While we’re on the subject to nostalgia, this Hotel Mira track is everything that I loved about the Strokes. It manages to combine the jangle and vocal enthusiasm of their early work with the guitar snarl of First Impressions of Earth. The chorus is all Darkness-style falsetto and joy. There’s a half-time breakdown. It’s just a great rock song. I don’t cover a lot of rock songs anymore but this one hits all the nostalgia buttons without being a copycat.
4. “Home” – Esther & Fatou. This duo manages to make the biggest “thum thum”s this side of Law and Order fit seamlessly into a rollicking, harmony-heavy folk tune. There’s also some wandering, wavering, synthy slices of sound adding depth to the tune. It’s one of those tunes where it feels like they’ve listened to a lot of different folk, indie-pop and electro stuff, then came back with the best of all of it.
5. “If Not For You” – Umbra and the Volcan Siege. I’m tough on covers, but sometimes a really good cover gets a pass if I’ve never heard or am not very familiar with the original work. This is the case here, as Umbra & Co. give a George Harrison song that I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a sprightly, lightly psych treatment. This is of the major-key, fuzzed-out psych variety, not the dark-and-strung-out kind. It’s just a lot of fun.
6. “Every Day and Night Now (Feat. Peter Morén)” – Kris Gruen. It’s not surprising that Peter of Peter, Bjorn and John is featured in this tune, as it purveys the sort of dignified enthusiasm that PB&J were so great at. This is striking, memorable songwriting, from the strong acoustic guitar work to the excellent vocal melodies to the strings to the tromping percussion. It’s the sort of song that makes you think “oh man, what else is there by Kris Gruen?”
7. “The Shell Lottery” – Ben Fisher. There are a lot of things you can write an album about, but a concept album about Israel and Palestine in a Sufjan Stevens’ state-album milieu is a pretty distinctive, unusual, and exciting one. Fisher’s lead track is a serious, contemplative, piano-driven tune that lays out the founding of Tel Aviv. There’s some arrangement, but the piano and Fisher’s calm, clear-eyed vocals are the big things here. Get ready for this one–this is going to be quite an album. Does the Land Remember Me? comes out September 7.
8. “Becoming My Own Home” – The Collection. David Wimbish has made a career out of humongous folk-orchestra arrangements, howling vocals, and uninterrupted yearning/questioning. This song throws over a bunch of those things without losing what makes the Collection distinctive: Wimbish reins in the arrangement (just strings, it seems like, although there’s always more hiding in a Collection arrangement), goes for a calm vocal performance by Wimbish standards, and sings about coming to peace with things (!!). But there’s a big swoop and sway that hearken back to highlights of Ars Moriendi, and Wimbish’s voice is just as excellent when he’s calm as it is when he’s calamitous. Side note: This song mentions “burning trees,” the name of The Collection’s first EP–I don’t know what that means, but it’s worth mentioning.
9. “rosalee” – humble thumb. Got some Spaghetti Western/Western Gothic/murder ballad songwriting for you right here. If you love lazily floating horns, traditional country bass playing, a touch of Tom Waits in your vocals, and high dramatic tension, this track will rocket up your list of new music.
10. “Bones” – Koltbach. I’ve been enjoying Koltbach’s streamlined electro for a while, and this track is no exception. Taking the drive of trance, the artistic filter of post-dub, and dusky atmosphere of trip-hop, Koltbach creates a smooth, engaging piece of electronic music. You can dance to this, but it would be slinky dancing, not big, jump-up-and-down trance movement. Very smooth.
On Red Sammy’s new album Neon Motel, songwriter Adam Trice explores a collection of barroom ballads that sound like an invitation to the barren frontier, one frosty brew, or a hot buttered rum on a frostier Baltimore night. Bruce Elliott (electric and electric slide guitar), Greg Humphreys (bass, mandolin, electric guitar), Ryan Bowen (drums), Anjili Babbar (backing vocals), and mastermind Trice (lead vocals, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, tambourine, mandolin) have opened for national acts like Deer Tick, Mike Watt and The Missingmen, Phosphorescent, and Dirty River Boys.
Some facts are certain here. The eleven songs are a deep dive into the land of angst-driven guitar. The video clip of mask-wearing school kids playing at life lets listeners get the vibe of “Ernie the Lizard”. With Trice crafting songs like the perky “You That I Refuse,” listeners may feel that they are in the hands of a master craftsman, because each note punctuates the message lyrically.
Laying in to rest of the album with the easy tempo of the title track, “Neon Motel” is sung with vocal gruffness that makes Red Sammy one of the best folk-rock singers around today. With an identifiable quality like Bob Dylan, Adam Trice has a style that is alive with nuanced emotion. Carving ideas out of each experience, a great songwriter takes each and uses it to his advantage. The slide guitar lover’s dream that is “Bad Ideas” pulls lyrics back in from the title cut. This tune shows a songwriter at home with his bandmates, creating a dank, dark frontier where listeners are invited to come. Exceptional guitar work rounds out the sound into something deeper, a pit of places that always end badly, eyes open at the end of a drunk night.
“You Don’t Gotta Convince Me” is magic, featuring beautiful harmonies in duet with backing vocalist Anjili Babbar; one of the magic moments on this album, this standout is crazy good. Tripping into “Firetrail” with its almost in-your-face blues rock, one thing is certain: evolution has occurred. Seven albums later this man does not sound tired of doing what he loves, despite the name “Tired and Free.” “Tired” eases in patiently, with Trice phrasing each vocal delivery purposefully. This comfortable, purposeful work is a mirror of greats like Dylan, come to life again for another generation in new rock star. “Rock Star” is that self-proclaimed anthem, coming in with a growl, a shout, stellar guitar work, and lyrics laden with sarcasm. The band takes that guitar work into ‘Roofbeam.” This cut also feels like a car sing-along, with Ryan Bowen keeping a noticeably steady beat on drums with Greg Humphreys on bass. Often restraint is a challenge to accomplish successfully, but there’s no problem here for these seasoned musicians. They mesh together seemingly without effort.
Conscious of sequencing on this piece of music, “I Stay in Bed” and “The Current” close out the record. The first has a Harry Nilsson, “pull the covers over the head” vibe. It’s a brilliant acoustic window into a horror show, a bookend to Childish Gambino’s mind-blowing “This Is America.” Red Sammy closes out with “The Current,” subtle and soft. The acoustic guitar is the voice that rings true, along with a wordsmith that has made his thoughts heard with a rock, folk, and Americana beat.
Singing the song of everyman, Red Sammy does something really special on his seventh release Neon Motel. Any listener has met the cast of characters that inhabit the world of Adam Trice and Red Sammy. Whether is is the businessman drinking his lunch, the booze hound lurking in the shadows, or the guy grateful to have made a fast getaway, we have met these folks before. Sometimes it is nice to know we all have the same dark places we can go visit. Sometimes hanging out in the shadows with your friends is the best place to be.–Lisa Whealy
1. “Computer Games” – Greta Jaime. Bass heavy. Metaphorically relevant. Swooning vocals. “Computer Games” by British up-and-comer Greta Jaime is layered with pops and cracks that belie a much lighter track than what the lyrics imply. She’s not afraid to stand alone from the instrumentals as “Computer Games” patiently builds itself up from the thumping back beats to a swirling collection of digitally driven cacophony. She’s an artist who is in total control of every sound and emotion. From the lyrical prowess to the aptly subtle guitar riffs that add to the ambivalent tone, Jaime’s strength lies in her courage and already legendary vocal range. Having caught the attention of the Glastonbury Festival’s Emerging Artist Competition, Jaime is undoubtedly on a fast-track to impressively high levels of success. –Maria Edwards
2. “The Highway State” – The Bowling Alley Sound. This post-rock outfit likes to bend the expectations of the genre–this is a major key piece, but not the surging crescendo of a Lights and Motion piece. This is cinematic, but more Wes Anderson than sweeping landscape. This has a lot of dynamic motion, but this is not a on/off/on roarer. Instead, this is a carefully crafted, beautifully executed, compositionally unique piece that includes a long spoken word section, interesting violin work, and strong trumpet use. There’s also guitars for those whom guitars in post rock is a mandatory–but they’re more like folk than like GYBE. So, overall–this is vastly impressive and interesting.
3. “On and On” – Manatree. This power-pop song rumbles forward with a passionate joie de vivre that is tempered only by the slowly-unfolding vocals (and even that isn’t too much tempering). There’s half a dozen moments in the tune that made my eyebrows raise expectantly, and a couple moments gave me shivers. I’ve got my head bobbing at my desk enthusiastically. These dudes should definitely go on tour with Brother Moses. If you like indie-pop, you need to listen to this one.
4. “Take the Doggie” – Shy Boys. It only takes 96 seconds for me to fall in love with this quirky power-pop/indie-pop tune that’s sung directly to a stray dog. Everything seems to be zooming in all sorts of directions and then it’s over, just in time to press replay. And the video has a bunch of dogs in it. Who can resist?
5. “So We Go” – Cable Street Collective. Excellent female vocals, reggaeton rhythms, hand percussion, and Caribbean vibes power this jubilant indie-pop track. There’s a hint of Vampire Weekend in there, but comparing Cable Street Collective to other bands sells them short. It seems impossible to not have fun while listening to this tune.
6. “Burning Bridges” – The Wandering Hearts. A lovely, lilting folk tune with thick harmonies, subtle percussion, perky bass, and comforting melodies. The smash-cut to the bass-heavy piano and female vocal solo in the bridge is particularly striking.
7. “California” – Mountain Lions. Can you write a song called “California” and not have someone mention Phantom Planet? Anyway, this acoustic indie-pop song is more chipper than the iconic indie serenade of the state, but it’s just as indie-charming. The acoustic arrangement is effervescent without being saccharine, and the melodies are as singable as you’d hope for such a big topic. There’s a touch of M. Ward here and there, some power-pop knowledge sprinkled on it, and the whole thing is wrapped up in a lovely production job. Just a winner, through and through.
8. “For U” – Uma E. Fernqvist. This is how you take trip-hop and move it forward without recreating Portishead. There’s a lot of the things you’d expect from trip-hop: dusky moods, icy tones, stark arrangements, staccato drums, and the like. But there’s also a continuity, an underpinning of a consistent beat drawn more from techno than from trip-hop, that gives this tune some contrast to the trip-hop base. It’s a fascinating, compelling mash-up. It’s also over eight minutes long, another nod to its electronic roots.
9. “Fire B” – Elephant Micah. Elephant Micah has a discography full of slowcore folk musings, and I like those recordings a lot. But, as I have coincidentally done, Elephant Micah suddenly got interested in electronic music. But, because Joe O’Connell loves minimalism, this is real minimal electronic music–sounds from a single synth wash over your ears, sometimes accompanied by another synth, but often not. After about 2.5 minutes of experiments like that, O’Connell bursts into a … cover of his own work? A riff on his own work? It’s not quite “If I Were a Surfer,” but it uses the same melodic and lyrical concepts. There are lots of clanks and bonks and bass whomps to go along with it. It’s a wild thing, regardless of whether you’ve heard Elephant Micah before.
10. “Run Away” – I Am Soyuz. An intimate acoustic tune that evokes the feel of everyone together in a small room making music together. The lead female vocalist has an intriguing, engaging voice and strong melodies to boot. The arrangement is subtle but well-turned–there’s interest for those looking for it. The whole thing comes off like a deconstructed folk-pop tune, sort of somewhere between Dana Sipos’ dreaminess and stomp’n’holler folk.
Michael Flynn (the Slow Runner one, not the other one) is allowing us to premiere a new video for “Get Old.” I say allowing because I love this video and feel genuinely honored to be the person who gets to premiere it. The song checks a ton of boxes for me: 1. It’s a piano-heavy ballad (check) 2. It’s got great melodies (check) 3. The lyrics are excellent, from a point of view not often heard (check) 4. It’s about parenthood but not in a pacifiers-and-LEGOs way (check) 5. Flynn’s vocal performance is excellent (check).
And then the video. Oh, the video.
When I showed up at work the first day I saw this, I did not expect to spend seven minutes crying at my desk, but that’s what happened. This video demonstrates everything good and right and lovely about family and parenting. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking all at once–on the one hand, this is a big visual list of happy moments of a family and that is to be celebrated. On the other, there are always hard things that don’t get in the videos (I know that as a parent myself). Even deeper than that, there are things in all our pasts and families that hurt us deeply–seeing a montage like this makes me well up with sadness in remembering those things. But then I also well up with happiness, thinking of the good times.
And then the end of the video transitions to Flynn’s daughter, and I lost it. I’d just gone through a catalog of the good and the bad in my own personal history and then, then I had to think, “Oh no, I have a child that looks that tiny and small and I have part of the responsibility of doing the best I can to make sure that someday there are more good things than bad things when my child thinks back on his family.” And right as I was suffering this deep parental existential fear, the lyrics returned and reminded me that Flynn is celebrating this. This is good. This can be good. This will be good.
So if you want all that to happen to you, you can check this out. In other words, the video is really good. Really, really good.
Howlin Rain has literally been around since their 2006 debut. The Oakland, California-based band has toured the world with their west coast rock flavor. More impressive is that the band is set to drop its fifth full length album, The Alligator Bride, via Silver Current Records this June. What a long, strange trip it’s been!
It can be tough to have comparisons tossed about to iconic bands like The Grateful Dead, getting hippie culture vibrating with expectations. Especially after the band had worked with famous producers that carried with it major labels.
Ethan Miller claims the role of lead howler and guitarist. Taking on the world in true DIY spirit, Miller makes Silver Current Records an artist-owned and artist-run endeavor. With their future in their own hands, this bunch of mischief makers is focused on some serious music making business, as The Alligator Bride can attest.
Joining Ethan Miller on guitar is Daniel Cervantes. Two guitars make for a wicked rich mix of sound. Jeff McElroy on bass and Justin Smith on drums create a foundation for this rock trip to happen. The seven songs of this album feature an authentic connection to a swampy groove–Mountain comes to mind, best known for their performance from 1969’s Woodstock.
From the opening of “Rainbow Trout,” one thing is apparent: listeners are on a road trip to parts unknown, and happily so. This track is magic: striking vocals and great guitar work with riff layered on riff. It’s a celebration of life in song, this kind of rock has been left to the Phish fans and Dead heads since 1969. Howlin Rain picks up that vibe, and this track is like the best of what started in 1967 at Monterey Pop.
“Missouri” follows with an easy feel, a down-home, road-trippin, blasting-out-of-the-radio-of-a-Volkswagen-bus song. Listeners can almost feel the wind in their faces. It’s a summer day in a song; there is no doubt why this was the first video to drop from the record. Musically, this is a masterclass in joyful noise: exceptional guitar work embraces Miller’s vocals with riffs all over.
The band follows that up with a contrast. “Speed” is a soft-spoken acoustic guitar with an easy, soothing voice. But “Speed” is also a story of contrasts: being high can take effort, as anyone that has ever had too much of anything will relate. This is songwriting brilliance. Following up with a track like “The Wild Boys” is a bit of sequencing genius. A song reminiscent of Grateful Dead, this is softly executed. Of all the songs so far this has the most Dead vibes; enough essence of what is past, but enough of what is Howlin Rain this is elevated beyond what may have helped create the music. Long jams and stellar drum work make this a stand out. However, it is apparent why “ Alligator Bride” is the title track. Lush harmonies tell the tale of simpler times that have moved on, good old days gone, never to return. Catch hold of your breath–this is a stunner that wraps in a squeal of guitars.
Miller greets listeners with crystal clear vocals on “In The Evening,” authentic and full of emotion. It is easy to be transported on this journey, simple and uncluttered musically. Three guitars and yet there is restraint–damn. Impressive. Easing out of the record with the final track, “Coming Down” is perfect. Anthemic yet subtle, with a festival-at-sunset feel, the road tripping is over with Howlin Rain and The Alligator Bride. Its beautiful crescendo of soaring guitars spiraling out with the vocal strength of Ethan Miller, say goodbye. Those guitar riffs that will keep fans smiling long after the music fades. Keep up with their tour dates at their website. –Lisa Whealy
1. “Muanapoto” – Tshegue. Dense, groove-heavy African rhythms power this unclassifiable tune, which falls somewhere between LCD Soundsystem electro, Afropunk, and The Very Best. May I repeat: those grooves. You’ll get moving on this one.
2. “Like the Night” – Moonbeau. This electro-pop jam played for roughly three seconds before I thought, “Oh yes. Ohhhhhhh yeahhhhhhhhhhhh.” The airy arpeggiator lead hook is awesome, the verses are perfectly done to build tension, and the chorus brings that hook back in excellently. The vocals nail it, too. If you love JR JR, Hot Chip, and the like, you’ll be absolutely all over this track.
3. “Happy Unhappy” – The Beths. The Beths are jumping in with Alex Lahey and Marsicans as purveyors of incredible, indelible guitar-pop in big batches. This second single I’ve heard from then is just everything I’m looking for in power-pop: thick guitars that yet don’t cover up the vocals, blast-off drums, big low end, and giddy enthusiasm. The fact that the giddy enthusiasm (check the “oh-ah” section) is deployed in a lyrical set complaining about being happy (ha!) is just rollicking fun.
4. “Forever” – The Gray Havens. TGH has moved from piano pop through expansive folk-pop to full-on indie-pop in this latest track. This jubilant track grows from a peaceful opening to include enthusiastic horns, a soaring vocal line, and punchy percussion. Fans of Graceland will hear some resonances there. It’s a blast.
5. “When I Look Back” – Lev Snowe. This track has some psych guitar touches toward the end, but for the majority of the piece it’s a hazy, dreamy, friendly indie-pop effort. Snowe’s fusion of fuzzed out bass (or guitar masquerading as bass), glittery synths, and even-keeled vocals creates a fun but not unserious atmosphere.
6. “I’m the Wolves” – St. Jude the Obscure. Turns a Band of Horses-esque dusky rumination into a full-on dance party–it’s sort of like when The Arcade Fire busts out “Sprawl II” in the middle of The Suburbs. It’s thoughtful, but also got a lot of kinetic energy going on.
7. “Setting In” – Ditches. Starts off with layers of squalling feedback, but quickly abandons this intro for a loping, scuffling, laidback indie-pop song. Fans of formal songwriting, Cut Worms, Grandaddy, The Shins, and more will love this delicate, melancholy, lovely tune.
8. “Ask Me Now” – Wes Allen. I love melodic percussion–xylophones, marimbas, and vibraphones create such a warm, enveloping mood for songs. Allen includes some melodic percussion in his reflective, somber pop song that calls up elements of Jackson Browne, Paul Simon, and other peaceful singer-songwriters of the era. It’s a rumination on a breakup, like so many others, but Allen’s well-turned vocal performance sells it.
9. “Our Conversation on July 7th” – God Bless Relative. World-weary folk-pop that yet retains a sweetness in the arrangement. The electronic drums give this a unique vibe before opening up into a full-band jam (including some of the best handclaps ever used in the service of sadness). One of those tunes that feels like it’s always been around and you’re just hearing it again–it’s that mature and well-developed.
10. “Tiananmen Square” – Cameron Blake. The ever-excellent Cameron Blake’s video for his moving tune “Tiananmen Square” is powerful. The clip shows a lot of historical footage of China ostensibly surrounding the 1989 student protests held in the titular location. The most intriguing part of the video is that, while I’ve seen the iconic tank man picture, I’d never seen video of the ensuing moments: tank man keeps moving in front of the tank, then climbs up on the tank (!!) and attempts to talk to people inside the the tank (!!!) before getting down off the tank and resuming his protest. It adds even more gravitas to an already incredible moment. Blake’s huge crescendoes only help with this feeling.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.