Until John Calvin Abney reappeared with Better Luck, he’d been a fixture in one particular corner of my mind. The last three semesters of my college experience were a difficult time for IC, as they include a 6-month shutdown of IC: the only substantial break I’ve taken in 11.5 years of writing here. I restarted tentatively in January 2009, trying to wrap my head around the impending end of college and the seemingly-unanswerable question of “what am I doing with Independent Clauses?”
That’s when I got to know John Calvin Abney: I went to his concerts, listened to his music, and even got him to help me record my debut indie-pop album. The working relationship helped get me back into music when I had been stalled for a while. But all things go; I left college, he left college, and we lost touch. So it’s with much amazement that I note several incredible things: 1. I get to debut John Calvin Abney’s Better Luck here on Independent Clauses and 2. John Calvin Abney is touring right now with M. Lockwood Porter, whom I met in high school and premiered an album for in 2014. It’s mind-bending, the smallness of worlds.
Yes, yes, that’s very nice disclosure-cum-nostalgia, Stephen, but how does the record sound? Better Luck is a confident collection of tunes that draws off troubadour fingerpicking, alt-country arrangements, and a history of woodshedding. If you can imagine what Jason Isbell’s alt-country might sound like if he was a little more influenced by freak-folk and indie-pop, then you can imagine Abney’s sound. Fingerpicking ballads like “Scarecrow” and “James and Julie” are evocative, catchy, and beautifully arranged, while noisier tunes like “Stepladder” and “Dallas City Lights” include some of the guitar solos that made Calvin such an impressive musician to watch live a half-decade ago.
But where earlier versions of Abney wanted to be a indie-pop songwriter and a guitar god simultaneously, Better Luck shows him in tasteful, refined form. I’d bet Abney can still wail live, but on record he’s developed a cool, confident persona that translates to easily-relatable songs instead of towering walls of guitar heroics. There are moments that call for some guitar thunder, but they’re set in service of the overall song instead of vice versa. His voice has also tightened up: the melodies and delivery are easy, smooth, and inflected with subtleties that turn songs like “James and Julie” and “Scarecrow” from good songs to great ones. (He can also still wail a harmonica with the best of them, which is a bonus wherever you can get it.)
Abney’s songs have a home base in the space between alt-country (“I Can’t Choose,” “Stepladder,” “Cut the Rope”) and folk (“Sirens,” “Scarecrow”), with some outliers in related genres: the ominous, bluesy slant of “Gold Silver”; the Coldplay-esque piano balladry of “Museums”; and the perky, indie-pop-influenced title track, which would have fit neatly as the best track on an early EP of his. Throughout it all, Abney delivers memorable vocal performances, strong songwriting, and tight arrangements.
Just as I noted for tourmate M. Lockwood Porter, John Calvin Abney inhabits these songs thoroughly: nothing feels out of place, nothing feels forced. Porter uses that ease to shuffle through genres like a deck of cards; despite the distinct genre influences that can be noted throughout, Abney seems to be honing down into a definable style. What I can only assume was ruthless editing throughout the process has delivered these songs to their final form in top shape. Better Luck is the product of hard work in developing a sound; that work results in a tight, crisp, earnest album of alt-country/folk songs that resonate easily and deeply.
1. “Seven Hells” – Quiet Company. If English goes through other languages’ pockets looking for spare grammar, Quiet Company has gone through the pockets of various rock genres (’00s garage, southern rock, alt-country, mid-’00s indie-rock-pop) for components to this excellent tune.
2. “As You Fall” – Heil Hipster. Speaking of ’00s garage, this tune has a walloping dose of brittle guitar, danceable rhythms, and just the right amount of outrage and ominous overtones.
3. “Waves Erase” – Reservoir. Yo, it would be hard to get any more Mare Vitalis than this, which is a pretty heavy compliment from over here.
4. “Take Me to the River” – Dr!ve. You gotta love a slinky/sexy/fun dance track with a hook you can chant, a beat you know and love, and cheerful melodies.
5. “Another Night” – Teen Daze. My favorite started-as-chillwave outfit has gotten downright clubby with this track, as the arpeggiated ’80s synths over an insistent beat throw Daze in a whole new direction. Get it.
6. “Unmistakeable” – In Tall Buildings. Some songs are meant to rock, and some are meant to vibe. This one vibes so hard, with a funk-lite guitar line, delicate synth patterns, and breathy vocals.
7. “Is This Hotel Haunted?” – Wild Pink. Rumbling, grumbling, twitchy, herky-jerky power-pop from the purveyor of IC faves Challenger; the same melodic and rhythmic gifts that made Challenger so cool are on display here.
8. “Love & War” – Fairmont. Fairmont rocks out more than they have in a long while, delivering up a towering slice of indie-rock that’s still built off their most recent songwriting foundation of acoustic guitar, indie-pop ideals, and Neil Sabatino’s vocals.
IC knows Jared Foldy as an acoustic singer/songwriter, so I was a bit surprised when he sent over his new single “Everglow.” Instead of dreamy, gentle acoustic picking, his new single has gently rolling electronic beats and a warm, lush arrangement. It’s a beautiful, pastoral piece that doubles as a chill dance anthem (refrain: “Take me back to summer”).
It perfectly balances its indie-pop and electronic commitments, resulting in a song that could fit as the last track on a chill indie-pop mixtape or get remixed with some sick drops and fit straight into a club mix. Get versatile, Jared! Above all that genre nonsense, it’s a fun, nostalgic, memorable track that IC is pleased to premiere today. You can also check it at his Soundcloud.
1. “Back, Baby” – Jessica Pratt. Mystical folk in a husky voice, reminiscent in mood of Carole King.
2. “Victoria” – Tamara Williamson. A haunting, eerie track that incorporates elements of folk, Argentine history (including the death flights), and enigmatic pop sounds (a la Bjork).
3. “I See You, Tiger” – Via Tanya. Combines the slow-paced mystery of trip-hop with a ’30s torch song and a ’60s Burt Bacharach arrangement for an enigmatic, enveloping tune.
4. “Portland Square” – Martin Callingham. You’re walking through a dark forest for fun and this music comes on. Instantly you know that you are starting an epic fantasy quest that may cost you your life, but you’re going to be a hero. You start looking for gear and feel no compulsion if you steal it out of empty houses. They have like ten swords there anyway.
5. “Primrose Green” – Ryley Walker. If you’re into rolling, pastoral ’70s folk a la John Denver, you’ll be all over this.
6. “Howl” – The Lowest Pair. I don’t know how a duo can sound so forlorn, but this guy/girl outfit manage to sound more morose than The Civil Wars (in the most endearing of ways, of course).
7. “Gold” – Dorthia Cottrell. If it ain’t a murder ballad, it sure sounds like one. If you like your country with great vocals, unadorned performances, and a side of slightly terrifying, jump on this one.
8. “Slow Time Vultures” – Elephant Micah. As far as I’m concerned, Jason Molina passed his Songs: Ohia baton directly to Elephant Micah. That’s all you need to know about this wonderful track.
9. “Everyone’s Summer of ’95” – Iron & Wine. Remember when it was just Sam Beam, a guitar, and romanticism? Here’s a new song from that era. It’s everything I could possibly want it to be.
Angela James – Way Down Deep. James’ voice is the star of this rich, elegant collection. Her strong, clear, bright alto leads the way through sparse but not stark environments, occasionally striking out with not much more than a gentle, distant guitar. She goes completely a capella in the evocative title track, a bold, risky move that pays off gloriously. She effects a regal stance through these tunes by calling up mental images of the torchy lounge singer, the world-weary blues singer, and the old-school country diva–sometimes all within the same song: “Dirty Moon” mixes 1800s saloon-style piano with early ‘1900s ragtime and jazz instrument soloing.
The album moves expertly through combinations of smooth jazz, alt-country, and modern singer-writer, showing tasteful, thoughtful touches no matter which genre is dominant in a song. (Check the wonderful jazz instrumental “Salt Town.”) But even though the arrangements are great, James is at her best when she lets it be stark and quiet: “I Should’ve Known,” “Lost and Found,” and the title track are majestic and masterful. The deft, impressive songwriting of Way Down Deep is the perfect vehicle for James’ remarkable vocal talents while still being engaging in its own right: there’s not much more you can ask of an album. And it’s classy as anything, too. Highly recommended.
Quinn Tsan – Good Winter. Bon Iver established brittle, distant, forlorn sounds as the definitive winter soundtrack; Quinn Tsan falls a bit afield from that vision by injecting warmth and immediacy into the vocals and instruments while still retaining the stark, austere singer/songwriter vibe. Songs like “Bedrooms III” perfectly capture the conflicted feel of sitting by a warm fire on a dark, cold night–your hands are comfortable, but the cold is creeping up your back. “Oh! The Places We’ll See!” delivers a similar vibe, but with a bit more of a sea shanty air. The title track of this six-song EP is actually the least wintry, as Tsan appropriates a lilting vocal style and a gentle-yet-perky instrumentation more similar to Lisa Hannigan, Regina Spektor, or Ingrid Michaelson. It’s an interesting, enveloping EP that establishes Tsan as someone to watch.
Sloth – Still Awake. Sloth is pretty perfectly named for a rock band that combines a pronounced Pavement streak in the vocals and guitar with a shuffle-snare alt-country. It’s a situation where the best of both worlds come together: the endearing slacker ethos of early ’90s indie-rock meets the fresh-faced sounds of ’90s alt-country in tunes like “Matador Scarf” and “No Places to Be.” Scuzzy guitar drops into the background of tunes, mumbly vocals wander around with wry amusement written all over them, and overall good vibes permeate everything.
Even tunes that lean more to one side of their genre mix are fun: “Cheer Up Charlie” is devoid of alt-country and plays up the pseudo-funky chill that white boys were (are) all about; “This Dashboard Looks Like the Rest of Our Lives” is a bent take on trad country, while “Dark Dark Dark” is as close to Jayhawks as Sloth gets. But it’s opener “Smug Rock” that shows the best way forward for Sloth: a space somewhere between the two genres where they can put their stamp on the sound. Just like most early ’90s indie-rock, Sloth’s work is just plain fun to listen to: delightfully quirky, unexpectedly exciting, and altogether impressive.
1. “Father’s Day” – Butch Walker. Do you want to cry? Butch Walker’s gorgeous, vulnerable, powerful eulogy for his father will make it happen. This is masterful songwriting.
2. “Through the Night and Back Again” – Michael Malarkey. With the casual vocals of Josh Ritter, the smooth yet perky vibe of Alexi Murdoch, and a charm all his own, Malarkey is now one to watch.
3. “How You Should Be” – Ethan Jano. Here we have a country-rock hollerer with a Johnny Cash strum, train-track drums, and a twitchy overall mood. It’s exciting.
4. “So Let’s Go” – Alan Doyle. If Imagine Dragons decided to write a sea shanty folk tune with some Celtic vibes, we’d have this astonishingly chipper tune. This should be crushing radio right about now.
5. “Never Gonna Cry” – Ryan Culwell. Mmm, I just can’t get enough of that Southern Gothic, windswept troubadour, Jason Isbell stuff. Mmm, mmm, mmm.
6. “Juniper Blues” – Chris Jamison. Jamison sets a stately, hushed mood, getting emotional without getting histrionic. For all those fans of the dignified dive bar singer/songwriter who takes his job of offering the soundtrack for climbing into a tumbler of whiskey and sadness seriously.
7. “Monterey” – Grand Lake Islands. Rides the link between cerebral folk mysticism and dreamy beach-bum sunshine nostalgia with surprising ease.
8. “I Need a New Hymn” – Grant Valdes. The latest in Valdes’ settings of unpublished hymn-writer Haden Laas’ texts is a perky, quirky, breathy tune that calls to mind an optimistic Elliott Smith, if you can imagine tapping your toes to Smith’s work.
Problems That Fix Themselves – Which Is Worse. This electronic duo creates gently unfolding, melodic ambient/glitch music. They manage to make glitch not sound brittle and lifeless, especially on standout track “8:62.” Elsewhere they make circuitbending sound downright beautiful; this might be the easiest introduction to the technically and musically intimidating practice I’ve ever heard. It’s not ODESZA by any means, but fans of melodic post-dub will find connections they may not have expected.
Nate Allen and the Pac-Away Dots – Take Out the Trash. The wild songwriter behind the folk/punk duo Destroy Nate Allen! took a long, hard look at the ills of society. The subsequent musical and lyrical response was a bit darker and weightier than DNA! purveys, although the songs of Take Out the Trash still fit in the folk/punk category. Allen’s raspy voice is perfectly suited to righteous indignation, and so tunes like “West Side Blues” come together perfectly with impassioned vocals over brazen electric guitars. On the other end of the spectrum, gentler tunes like “Social Equality” aim an introspective lens at social justice with banjo, brushed drums, and acoustic guitar. It may make you laugh a bit less and think a bit more than DNA!, but the songwriting chops are just as strong (and in some places stronger) for the change in topic.
Kayte Grace — Chapter 2: Sail There EP. Kayte Grace’s country-folk-pop is a charming, romantic brew that will appeal to fans of Taylor Swift, Twin Forks, and young love. There’s infinite depth to be mined in young love, and Grace does that here, both melodically and lyrically. It’s smooth, sweet, but not too saccharine; if you’re swooning over someone right now, you’ll be all about it.
It’s been a wild and chaotic 2015 so far, as I’ve already logged two interstate trips. Amid the travel commitments, I’ve had the good pleasure of coming across the alt-country of Embleton. Kevin Embleton’s songwriting vehicle combines the poignant pedal steel of Mojave 3, the soaring arrangements of Dawes, and the ragged charm of Bright Eyes in the sentimental barn-burner “Leaving for Good.” The living eulogy for a close friend leaving the area floats along on a river of flaring horns and Embleton’s low, passionate vocals.
I usually post a video of the “I Have a Dream” speech on MLK Day, but this year I have a different King speech to post. Over the past year, I’ve been a part of a group of academics working to recreate King’s “A Creative Protest” speech, which is more commonly known as the “Fill Up the Jails” speech. You can listen to a voice actor performing the speech at our website.
May the vision of equality and peace that Dr. King proclaimed so fervently be realized here and now and soon and forever.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.