Being labeled “indie” can be a constricting thing for artists that are searching for solid footing. Avoiding traps such as this, The Singer and The Songwriter are solidly owning their own space in the folk genre. With an airy tone blending into this six song EP Directions, it is easy to hear where comparisons to the likes of Sara Bareilles came from. To be compared to vocalists like that could be a bad thing, if someone cannot deliver. Wonderfully, that is not the case here.
Rachel Garcia and Thu Tran are The Singer and The Songwriter. They each embrace their connection as a duo brilliantly. Written over the past year after a seventy-nine city tour across twenty-five states, the album was recorded at Hyde Street Studios in San Francisco with producer/engineer Scott McDowell (The Head and The Heart).
Embracing the songs that evolved out of this journey, “Wild Heart” kicks in with a light, airy vibe, bringing to mind every childhood summertime in the country. A stellar example of painting with sound, listeners are invited on a journey with this band from California. The duo blends multicultural influences into sounds that wrap into the soul. It is easy to resonate with “Give Love”: doesn’t this song speak to us all? Garcia delivers a vocal performance that finds the strength of Tran’s guitar to lean upon. Stellar and sweet, this one is an auditory vision of love.
Halfway through the six songs, “Anywhere, Everywhere” is a touring musician’s life for the rest of us to enjoy. I love the production here–it is simple and structured, allowing the lyrical simplicity to breathe. Finding a way to bring the road to listeners, “Anywhere, Everywhere” is that life down to fast food and kindness of strangers. Darren Johnston’s trumpet really shines here, giving punctuation to the simple beauty of the song. Uncluttered and unburdened by too much production, each moment is a road trip into the unknown. None the worse for wear, listeners can only appreciate this by hanging arms out of the windows, soaring.
The Singer and the Songwriter explore these same ideas in the album artwork from Danielle Krysa. Mixed media on paper, the album art brings an augmented vision to the music that feels like a watercolor painting: bright and soft, a blend of colors, with light brushstrokes making the impressions.
Many argue that serendipity brings people and situations together for unknown reasons– “Worried No More” questions when and how that happens. Jazz elements come together in a twist-and-shout feel on one of the best tracks of the release. This song provides a playground for Garcia to sing around, all wrapped in Tran’s guitar. “Show Me The Mountain” is that cinematic performance most bands could only dream of. Layering Garcia’s restrained vocal delivery on drums from Aaron Kierbel, this music is exotic and hypnotic. The track is a masterpiece in every way.
Heading out of the record, it is easy to see how a return to the beginning is what feels right for The Singer and The Songwriter. It is delightful to hear Asian influences in “Apparent Brightness” subtly commingling with hispanic rhythmic patterns. Gerry Gross on piano and Mia Nardi-Huffman on violin are not to be forgotten on this release as well. This whole album was done with a gentle hand in San Francisco.
Wrapping the ears around this collection of music over and over again is highly recommended. With each musical vision on each track, the unfolding of a journey begins. Each time around brings to light more and more to appreciate in the sonic layering techniques.–Lisa Whealy
4. Fear Not – Cameron Blake. (Review) This album spans an impressive range of emotions, moods, genres, and lyrical places. Blake shows off his distinctiveness throughout.
5. Oversleepers International – Emperor X. (Review) Starts off as a acoustic-punk album, then sprawls outward in all directions. The one-two punch of “Wasted on the Senate Floor” and “Schopenhauer in Berlin” is the best album-opening blast of the year.
8. Listen to the River – The Collection. (Review) It’s an emotionally heavy piece of work, which is par for the course with the Collection. The orchestral-folk outfit’s songwriting vision is as clear and strong as ever.
9. II – Alex Dezen. (Review) A veritable jukebox of ’70s and ’80s pop styles matched with Dezen’s eye for lyrical detail and ear for inescapable melodies.
10. Tambaleo – Matthew Squires. (Review) Squires’ left-of-center, idiosyncratic vision of indie-pop is on full display here. I didn’t hear anything else like Tambaleo all year.
Winding on out of each year, the reflection of great music begins. Here are my picks. That being said, I do hope that you find a bit of something new that brings you cheer heading into the 2018!
10. Jenny Scheinman – Here on Earth. It’s a rare feat to bring true roots Americana to life. Jenny Scheinman does just that in her album Here On Earth. History brought to life musically, this is an experience not to be missed.
9. This Pale Fire – Alchemy. Singer/songwriter Corban Koschak performs as This Pale Fire from Auckland, New Zealand. His subtle, nuanced acoustic music is finding wings around the globe with soulful melody and emotive vocal delivery, bringing to mind early years of Michael David Rosenberg.
8. Cyclope Espion – Friday Night Epitaph. The best music tells a story. Finding a voice in America, French-born Cyclope Espion’s Friday Night Epitaph is the story of New York City. With every raw, Dylan-esque moment, this album is “Indélébile” from start to finish.
7. DoubleVee – The Moonlit Fables of Jack the Rider. This is trippy indie at its finest. With shimmers reminiscent of Oingo Boingo, this is musical deliciousness not to be missed. Jack the Rider emerges out of Norman, Oklahoma–not normally known as a spot for a concept album. But to say any more about the album might take away from an initial listener experience with Alan and Barb Vest.
6. Charles Ellsworth – Cesaréa.Ellsworth’s 2017 record found him back at Flying Blanket Studios working with producer Bob Hoag. This partnership helped shaped the evolution of many tracks that populate Cesaréa. Travels and journeys forge this singer/songwriter’s journey through life. This is the third full-length album by the artist who left the wilds of northeastern Arizona to finish film school in Utah, only to uproot and end up in Brooklyn. It will be great to hear what the next five years in his life sounds like.
5. The American West – The Soot Will Bring Us Back Again. Matthew Zeltzer (guitar/vocals) and Maria Maita-Keppeler (vocals, violin) are The American West from Portland, Oregon. Their “post-Americana” sound envelops each track off their debut album The Soot Will Bring Us Back Again.
4. Trevor James Tillery – Together, Alone. With some of the most stunning artwork of the year representing an album of pure social analysis, this Nashville-based singer/songwriter proves that each carefully-chosen lyric can paint a picture in music. Undeniably outstanding.
3. Jason Van Wyk – Attachment and Opacity. These two albums of piano is the storyteller for a look at relationships. This two-part masterwork is composition at its finest.
2. Grover Anderson – From the Pink Room. All listeners gravitate toward great songwriting. From The Pink Room is the third album from the folk singer/songwriter from historic Murphys, California. The album blends great storytelling in a true troubadour fashion with country flair. Anderson is a man to watch.
1. Polyrhythmics – Caldera. Genius takes all forms, but rarely does that put nine musicians of incredible caliber into a creative space–the album is named Caldera after the form left behind from a volcanic eruption. On their fourth studio album, the Seattle-based band is all about that jazz. But that foundation allows the band to stretch into rock, funk, blues, and R&B forms. Their sound expands like the caldera that is the album’s namesake.
I hope to hear your favorites from this year’s IC. Have a prosperous 2018! –Lisa Whealy
1. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas / Homeward Bound” – Cassandra Kubinski. A piano-led rendition of the forlorn standard segues right into the Simon and Garfunkel classic. How has this pairing not happened more often? A great mashup.
2. “City of David” – The Gray Havens. The indie-pop duo goes heavy vocals on this Christmas track, layering effects-laden waves of vocals on top of each other. It’s a suitably expansive, reverent, wide-open song.
3. “Linus & Lucy” – Steelism. It’s hard to take on a classic, but Steelism nails it. This rumbling, punchy, modern indie version of the Vince Guaraldi masterpiece is fun, quirky, and strong. Press repeat!
4. “Oh Holiday!” – The Lighthouse and the Whaler. Christmas + perky indie-pop is a winning combination almost every time. This one will make you shake shoulders and maybe even your hips.
5. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” – Lindby. Lindby never disappoints. The versatile, genre-hopping band has delivered a fairly straightforward take on the Christmas standard, but the be-bopping bass and fantastic vocal performances make it a strong contender. The following two tracks are also wonderful–you need to check them out too.
1. “Calliope” – Zorita. Sleek, thoughtful, emotional, carefully crafted–this is top shelf indie-pop. The horns that float effortlessly around the intricate guitar work are like the best icing you could imagine on an already-great cake. Highly recommended.
2. “Post-Youth Depression” – Joe Russell-Brown. Post-Pavement, post-Weezer slacker-rock that retains the slurry, easygoing nature of the vocals, the big guitars, and the youth-culture lyrics of both bands. The guitar melodies are great, but you already could have guessed that.
3. “Killing in the Name” – Brass against the Machine feat. Sophia Urista. A brass band takes the RATM standard-bearer and turns out their own huge, ferocious version. Sophia Urista is appropriately and excellently furious.
4. “Pistol Twisted Tongue” – Jack Ellis. Every time I think I’m done with guitar rock, a song comes out of nowhere and just knocks me flat. Ellis makes hard-charging guitar and frantic vocals sound like a revelation. This sounds way more like Clutch than it does the Vaccines, but hey, you never know when the song will move you.
5. “Blue Sun” – Hellens. Starts off with a full-on assault of shoegaze guitars, but mixes the male/female duo vocals up in the mix like an indie-rock song would in parts. (There are some distant/gauzy vocals as well.) It gives this quality tune some unique texture. The drums and bass also do a fantastic job of selling the song.
6. “Sometime” – Temples of Youth. Minimalist, deconstructed ’80s synth-pop that yet retains soul, emotion, and mood. The vocal performance breathes life into a well-crafted composition of skittering beats, icy synths and bonking synth noises.
7. “Say You Love Me Too” – Jonathan Bree. Is this cool or scary or both? There’s a great, loping bass line; ghostly synths; distant noises; rock-solid percussion; and oddly/perfectedly affected vocals that make “say you love me too” sound less like a come on and more like a threat. It’s definitely unique. The video, which uses morph suits to make all the performers seem like living mannequins, drives home the mood and the concept of the tune even more.
8. “The Fawn of Teal Deer” – Lucille Furs. Post-Beatles psych-pop that hits all the right notes vocally, lyrically, and in the strong guitar work.
9. “Brigands and Seafaring Landlubbers” – The Complete Set. Somewhere between ’70s psych, ’90s Brit-pop, and contemporary post-rock sits this intriguing instrumental track that features funky, roving bass.
10. “Archer Jane” – Nathan Felix. The orchestral composer takes a break from the ensemble to compose a synth-heavy soundtrack for a sci-fi movie. This opening track sounds like a cross between the eeriness of Tron and the sweeping adventurousness of a Star Trek theme.
There’s no one quite like Lord Buffalo. The Austin outfit combines acoustic drone, folk, indie-rock, and post-rock into inventive, unexpected tunes that capture a sense of the Wild West. If you’re up for a wild, blow-back-your-hair listening experience, Lord Buffaloshould be your jam.
The six-track record starts off with “Xochimilco,” a tune with roughly 30 seconds of drone and 50 seconds of gritty single-note guitar and shrieking violin on top of that drone. That interplay between tense, quiet moments and powerful, blasting ones is a theme that continues throughout the record.
“Axolotl” is a microcosm of the whole record: powerful, emotion-wracked vocals howl over a simple rhythmic base of stomping guitar chords, simple drums, and patterned bass before exploding abruptly into a furious maelstrom of sound. (I’ve used “maelstrom” to describe Lord Buffalo before, and the word is not getting any less apt.) The band goes back and forth in quiet/loud until the absolutely towering conclusion that would put a lot of more traditional post-rock bands to shame in sheer force.
The last dying organ holds bleed into “Alvar Nunez Cabeza De Vaca,” which is a mournful, skyscraping dirge that resists going full out into post-rock (it just threatens it, which is a threat to believe after “Axolotl”). The ten-minute “Saxifrage” is the most country-inflected of the tunes, as the opening salvo sounds almost traditional (but there’s always a tinge of doom from the ever-present reverb). The tune moves through sections that can be even called pretty before punching into something approximating indie-rock. And that’s only half the tune.
There’s a lot going on in Lord Buffalo, as the band stretches their bounds in every possible way. (I feel just terrible for the violin used on this record, what with all the sounds that are wrung out of it.) But all throughout there is a consistent ethic: an intensity that manifests itself in all-out pounding and in very quiet sections. Lord Buffalo is giving its all on this record, and you can tell. If you’re into maximalist music, atypical folk, weird post-rock, or any combination of those things, you’ll find a treasure trove on this self-titled record.
1. “At Night” – Esther & Fatou. “Where do you go at night?” is the question that floats over a whirling, intricate composition that’s somewhere between a Fleetwood Mac tune and a contemporary orchestral piece. It is a seriously impressive piece of work. Highly recommended.
2. “Louise” – Bedouine. This track is positively hypnotic: lush strings, lilting nylon-string guitar, a lovely presentation of the Armenian language, excellent trumpet, and a strong rhythm backdrop sail me away to someplace mysterious and far away.
3. “The First Girl” – The Good Graces. Pedal steel is hard to use because it is so incredibly associated with country. But here, in this singer/songwriter/indie-pop/folk/indie-rock/whatever tune, the pedal steel is a fantastic piece of work. This ’90s-influenced piece is weightless in some places and weighty in others–deft transitions and solid songwriting make it work.
4. “All These Trees” – The Welcome Wagon. WW drops a rock’n’roll song (heavy on the roll, though–this is pretty vintage-y rocking) that is abruptly interrupted by a dream sequence that Sufjan himself would be envious of. All in all, a thoroughly solid indie outing.
5. “Tell Me” – Sonder Saloon. There’s something permanently endearing to me about blasting out of a quiet section of song with a wall of harmonized vocals. The band does that beautifully here, and includes some tambourine and glockenspiel for good measure in this wintry folk tune.
6. “Mistery Town” – Stolen Apple. Hazy, rain-soaked indie that evokes the sense of wandering the damp streets of a major urban space at night. The low-slung guitar reminds me of Mojave 3, which is always a good thing. A very cool track.
7. “Hollow” – Maria Kelly ft. Ailbhe Reddy & LAOISE. This is a fluttering, emotionally vulnerable track with a strong vocal performance. It’s ghostly and memorable.
8. “The Falling Peach” – Kye Alfred Hillig. Hillig’s Fossil is an sonically intense, lyrically angry album that shows a lot of people trying to make their way through or thinking back on bad situations. The lyrics hold true here–the mood of this track, though, is ominous rather than blistering. There’s a lot of bass, careful percussion, and eerie sounds holding out off in the distance. Not the most representative track of the record, but one of the most intriguing for readers of this blog.
9. “Running Through My Mind” – Jacob Thomas Jr. Fans of Peter Bradley Adams and Josh Rouse will love this smooth, easygoing ode to a lost love.
10. “Let It Roll On” – Alex Hedley. Some burbling acoustic guitar sets the troubadour mood, and then Hedley’s Joe Pug-esque howl turns up the intensity. The harmonica ties it all up in a pretty package. Hedley is one to watch.
11. “Horace in Brighton” – Bird in the Belly. If the song title or the band name didn’t tip their UK roots, the charming, engrossing lead female vocal performance will. And if that doesn’t prove it, they use the word “pantaloons.” The folk tune that supports these vocals is lithe and strong.
12. “Honey” – Nick Galitzine. Dusky, soul-inflected, and expansive singer/songwriter work that has impressionistic echoes of Ray LaMontagne.
13. “Liviandad” – Juan Maria Solare. This tune is a delicate, exploratory piano piece that revels in space. It plays with the ear’s perception of major/minor keys throughout, which is clever and enjoyable.
14. “Palliative” – Theo Alexander. Fans of John Luther Adams will find the towering clouds of sonics that Theo Alexander has put together incredibly pleasing. Layer upon layer of piano and synths creates the ability for the song to sound like rushing water, as well as like being underwater. It’s a beautiful landscape.
Silver Torches‘ Let It Be a Dreamspeaks convincingly and heartbreakingly in a rural, blue-collar voice, along the lines of Jason Isbell or Hillbilly Elegy. (The excellent album art perfectly displays the culture the band is talking about.) But where Isbell’s work can get raucously loud, Silver Torches’ singer/songwriter work is intimate, drawing the listener close to the pain and difficulty of that life.
The lyrics throughout the record are powerful. Even in the most sonically expansive track, the ’80s-synth-led “If I Reach,” principal songwriter Erik Walters ties blue-collar concerns (“There’s no heaven or hell waiting for us / we punch the clock”) to the emotional realities of a dead-end situation (“If you leave before me / Don’t you know / I won’t be far behind / If you make your peace / Before me / I won’t mind”). Elsewhere, stories of small town bars (“Bartender”), rust belt unemployment (“Half a Heart”), and missed opportunities (“Keep the Car Running,” “At the Lantern”) call up comparisons to Bruce Springsteen’s lyrical concerns. In dealing with these nuanced, complex situations, Walters shows himself an skillful lyricist and observer of the human situation.
The music is just as impressive as the lyrics: this is a full-band effort, expanding singer/songwriter tunes with strong arrangements. The tone is different, but the work of Counting Crows has some of the same contours–songs that could be solo pieces, but are filled out. Walters knows how to write an inescapably catchy vocal hook (“Keep the Car Running,” “Like a Child,” “At the Lantern”)–these songs stuck with me for a long time after their runtime. Those aforementioned arrangements are strong: they allow the songs to surge, swell, and sway where necessary. The band offers up a quiet intensity that lends a vital urgency to the tunes of difficult life.
Every song on Let It Be a Dream is commendable, from the emotionally devastating “Let It Be a Dream” to the impressive vocal performance of “Half a Heart” to the soulful “I Can’t Lie” to spartan vibes of closer “Bartender.” It’s not a long record, but it’s one that stuck with me for a long time. If you’re looking for incisive lyrics, excellent songwriting, and intimate performances, Let It Be a Dream is a must-hear. It’s heavy, but it’s the right kind of heavy: the kind that lets you take something away that you didn’t think about before.
Clem Snide always seemed a little out of phase with the rest of the world: not quite country, not quite indie, heavily literate, deeply ironic, secretly hopeful. I loved their work, and it’s with great joy that I report this: Monk Parker has picked up their torch and run with it. But that’s only a starting point, as Parker’s slow-paced, dense, expansive, heavily atmospheric take on country music blazes its own path from Snide’s starting point. Crown of Sparrowsis thus one of the most exciting alt-country releases of the year.
Parker’s voice is smooth and often elegant, leading the way through lush arrangements of pedal steel, broad horns, ambient sound (as in the opening of the title track) and more. The songs are melancholy but not depressing–they have an internal, almost subterranean, jubilance due to the vibrance of the arrangements. The songs are also long. There are only six tunes here in a runtime of over a half hour. This gives tunes like the title track and “Oh Cousin” the time they need to produce their magic. Hopefully Monk Parker will capture country’s attention the way Clem Snide never did–if so, country has another ship to add to the armada of new artists pushing country forward in unique ways.
Ghost and Tape‘s Vár is a perfect album to feature after Parker’s work. It is a warm, delicate, open-hearted ambient album that sounds matches some of the warm, patient qualities of Parker’s work. It is an album of intense detail and careful attention to the whole experience.
For example, the album art is some of the most fitting I’ve seen on a record this year: the colors are bright yet sun-dappled, the petals floating away convey a weightless feeling, and the image looks very sharp but starts to get a little soft as you get closer and closer. These are all apt descriptions of the music itself, from the drone of “Eostre” to the sound recording of walking through a forest (“hatch”) to the ocean waves and synth waves of closer “Seabird.” This is a beautifully calming record, a place to clear your mind and be made aware of the beauty around you. If you’re not into ambient music, this is a great place to start learning about how ambient can be amazing.
Lis the sound of a musician pushing himself. Holy ’57 knows how to write great Vampire Weekend-inflected indie-pop songs, and L does not disappoint on that front (“Water // Chrome,” “Canary,” “A Fragile Thing,” “Alison, Pt. 1”). Each of them have bouncy rhythms, clever arrangements, hummable melodies, and bright moods.
Placed around this very solid collection of pop tunes are interstitial found sounds [“(voicemail)”], instrumental variations on a theme (“Alison, Pt. II”), an ambient album coda (“Walkie Talkie Reprise”) and a fantastically ambitious opener track called “Bombay – Nairobi – London (Repeater).” The first three elements I mentioned there give the release heft–they make this into a total artistic idea instead of just a bunch of tunes. The fourth is where the total artistic idea begins.
“Bombay – Nairobi – London (Repeater)” is a long, complex instrumental tune that draws in elements of ambient, indie-rock, jazz, afrobeat, and more. There are towering horns, shimmering synths, and melismatic vocals amid the more-layers-than-you-can-shake-a-stick-at. The instruments are the backdrop to the dramatic life story of songwriter Alex Mankoo’s grandmother, told autobiographically through a recorded interview. It’s an impressive, engrossing opening track that leads the way into the rest of the mini-LP. If you’re into adventurous work that pushes the bounds of pop but also delivers some solid pop tracks along the way, go for this one.
Hauck’s solo oeuvre is tied to intimate, gentle music, and this one is no disappointment on that front. Over a burbling, swift fingerpicking pattern, Hauck’s distinctive tenor delivers a calm, reassuring vocal line. A stolid, sturdy piano gives some heft to the tune, and high harmony vocals give the tune an airy quality.
It’s an excellent song, evoking a cross between Nick Drake’s effortless weightlessness and José González’s dusky work. Fans of modern folk should be very excited for this song and the subsequent pay-what-you-want EP. Highly recommended.
Yellow Feather‘s “Lucille” video is a warm, goofy, good-natured clip that features the wanderings of band leader Hunter Begley in a cardboard bird outfit, a gold (yellow?) feather necklace, and underwear. (Okay, also socks/shoes.) He makes his way out of a forest, over a bridge, into a derelict barn, through an outdoor market, and finally on top of a boxcar. There’s also a kicker at the end that gives some hint as to what’s actually going on in the clip, but I’ll let you discover that yourself.
The song itself is almost as good-natured as the clip itself; it’s a gently honky-tonkin’, loping Americana tune a la Old Crow Medicine Show. The bouncy arrangement contrasts with the wry, regretful lyrics, displaying the remorse that comes of realizing (and re-realizing, and re-realizing) you weren’t the good one in the relationship.
The vocal delivery from Begley is perfect: there’s a touch of the shame he’s singing about around the edges of the lines, but also enough buoyancy to keep up with the major key arrangement. It’s a great song to go along with a great video.
“Lucille” is the lead single from And Gold, which drops tomorrow, December 1.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.