The Old Town School of Folk Music is a pretty amazing establishment in Chicago. Whenever I hear its name invoked, it’s always in the context of some brilliant traditional music. Charming Axe, which features a teacher from Old Town, is no exception. If you’re into traditional Appalachian harmonies and instrumental style, you’ll fall in love with Charming Axe‘s Gathering Days.
The trio features a bright, traditional Appalachian folk sound that’s heavy on mandolin, banjo, and vocal harmonies. In contrast to more modern folk bands like Mumford and Sons or even Nickel Creek that create a very loud, percussive sound, Charming Axe keeps things light and warm here. The majority of the songs are covers, although there are some nice originals. This gives them strong source material to work with; they can focus on their performance and arrangement of tunes by masters like Bill Monroe, Earl Montgomery, and the Louvin Brothers. They also put a pleasing folk spin on tunes by more contemporary pop artists like James Taylor and Bruce Cockburn.
Traditionalists will love this trio; they play ‘em like nothing has ever changed. There’s something warm and comforting in this sound, and that’s not something to be taken lightly these days.
It appears that someone in Ukraine shot down a Malaysian jet liner, killing all 295 people on board. If this seems random, garish, and apropos of nothing, that’s because it is. Malaysia and Ukraine were not at war with each other. This serves no obvious purpose. Death appears, and it is absurd; we rage against it. It is this sense of outrage that powers The Collection‘s Ars Moriendi.
It must be said straight away: Ars Moriendi is unapologetically weighty. It tackles questions of death, life, and religion unflinchingly. Some people in this album don’t believe in God; others do. Narrators live. Narrators die. There are straight people, gay people, married people, lonely people, depressed people, and recovering people. The one thing that unites them all is that they’re all gonna die, and they’re all concerned about what this means for their lives. There are songs here that hit me hard in my particular current life experience–I’m willing to bet that there are different ones for other people. The Collection isn’t shying away from what they’ve got to say about life in the context of death, which is a rare thing. But don’t worry–there’s a great amount of hope and exultation in the tunes that accompany these thoughts.
The music here is by turns jubilant, pensive, and energetic, but it’s always passionate. This diverse sound is created by the Collection’s 16-piece folk orchestra–and when I say “orchestra,” I don’t mean there’s a string player and a horn player. The credits on this album are humongous, including 27 people. Lead songwriter David Wimbish takes the giant ensemble that he has and leads them to create some of the most incredible folk-inspired tunes I’ve ever heard.
Wimbish can write a mournful dirge (“The Doubtful One”), but he can also write a jubilant tune of celebration (lead single “The Gown of Green”). He can use every single instrument at once (“Garden”) or lead the orchestra to beautifully frame a trumpet solo (the Beirut-esque coda of “The Borrowers”). He knows how to write indelible vocal melodies–”Scala Naturae” and “Broken Tether” in particular, although you can sing along to almost every single tune here. Some of the crescendoes they hit are downright shiver-inducing; then again, it’s emotionally devastating when he drops out the orchestra and just sings against an acoustic guitar. The songs are about as varied as a cohesive album can get, moving from thrashy galloping drums backed by a full orchestra (“The Art of Dying”) to Wimbish barely holding his voice together in sadness over a solo piano (“Some Days I Don’t Want to Sing”). Ars Moriendi wrings me out emotionally as a listener. I can’t imagine writing and performing it.
It does sound like it wrings out Wimbish, though–as the primary voice of The Collection, he’s the one tasked with delivering the words that accompany all these tunes. His vocal styles are as diverse as the songs ask for: he whispers, sings, hollers, shouts and roars his way through the album. There are few vocalists as engaging as Wimbish: I don’t know if he’s going to break into falsetto or a terrifying roar at any given moment. It makes sense that Wimbish would collect an enormous number of instruments, because that seems like the only thing that could match the depth, disparity, and ferocity of his vocal stylings. My personal favorite line to yell along with is “and though my feet walk very slow, and there is death between my bones, I’ll make it home!” from “Broken Tether.”
I can remember individual lines, but keeping the incredible number of lyrics straight is challenge. Wimbish has written extremely detailed, thoughtful, and meaningful lyrics that don’t just skate the surface. There is hard-won experience documented here, and it’s difficult to look past it to just hear the beautiful, energetic music. Instead, the album is a whole experience. I very often listen to music while I work–this album does not allow that. This is an album that demands attention musically, lyrically, and emotionally. I can’t just hum a lyric here and there and not be moved. I mean, just go read his lyrics listed on the Bandcamp and see. This is not background music in any way, shape, or form. Again: Ars Moriendi is a whole experience.
I could go on about this album for 700 more words, but I’ll try to close here. Ars Moriendi is the sort of album that sucks you in with every song; there’s not a bad one in the bunch. That’s impressive in a 13-song album that’s nearly an hour long. Each song has an astonishing amount of carefully crafted lyrics, painstaking arrangements, moving performances, and brilliant production work. There are six or seven songs that would qualify as the best track on anyone else’s album. It is an album that challenges me emotionally, spiritually, and musically. It’s in the lead for my album of the year.
The last time someone seriously considered death and its consequences, it started The Arcade Fire on a course that resulted in the heights of musical success. Here’s to hoping the Collection sees that level of success–their work here merits it.
One of the many things I do is teach at a university, which means that my summers are a little less hectic than “real life” strictly demands that they be. I’m not sitting around and playing Skyrim every day, but I am a little more in touch with the lazy summers of youth than some. That’s why Summerooms‘ self-titled album appeals to me so much: it’s perfect lazy summer pop.
It also helps that Summerooms is the side project of the prolific Josh Jackson (of Fiery Crash, not of Paste). Jackson usually splits his time between fuzzed-out dream pop and bleary-eyed acoustic work, but in Summerooms he lets those lines blur in a delightful, delicious way. It’s a testament to Jackson’s thoughtfulness and status as a student of music that he tagged the release as dream pop, folktronica, hypnagogic pop, indie folk, jangle pop, and neo-psychedelia. All of these tags are fitting, which proves A. how many people will love this release and B. how diverse he manages to make the offerings here. The best part about B is that even with the varieties throughout, the mood remains consistent. This is for the dreamy, chill, relaxing days of summer.
“Try to Wake Up” is a perfect example of Jackson’s cross-genre mash. The twinkly guitar line has the rhythms of The Last Man on Earth-style indie folk, while it has the tone of dream pop and the subtle energy of hypnagogic pop. Outside of genre labels, it’s a happy, quiet, dreamy tune that doesn’t get ponderous. He follows it with the ambient/chillwave interlude “Seth’s Backyard” before delivering a drum set, some guitar chords, and more tons of reverb in the neo-psychedelia/dream pop of “Ohm I, Ohm E.” All of these tunes are delivered with a guileless, wonderfully relaxed tone. You just can’t beat it for relaxing to.
Summerooms is a beautiful, chill, sun-dappled album that doesn’t need me to explain it to death. If you like lo-fi pop that will put you in a good mood, you’re going to love it. Here’s to lazy evenings by the pool and in the hammock.
People often ask me to define folk, Americana, folk-rock, or alt-country. I understand the confusion: the nuances are there, but for many casual listeners they can be pedantic or unimportant. It doesn’t help that many of those genres share traits, with the difference only lying in the emphasis of this one or that one. Then there are the grey areas. However, sometimes an artist comes around that fits the bill exactly. Keyan Keihani, for instance, is an alt-country artist through and through.
Keihani relies on country vibes, full-band arrangements, pedal steel, organ, rock-style songwriting (verse/chorus/verse), and modern melodies in Eastbound–which is exactly what alt-country bands are known for. The Jayhawks, Ryan Adams, and the Old 97s are all examplars of the modern version of the sound that The Byrds, CSN&Y, and Buffalo Springfield helped invent. But just because something can be named doesn’t mean it’s not exciting and interesting. Keihani’s vocal melodies and tight arrangements create a memorable, easygoing record that invites you to press repeat.
“Don’t You Ever Leave” is a perfect example of his sound. Swooping pedal guitar, insistent drumming, and honkytonk piano come together to create something much greater than the sum of their parts. Keihani ties all these parts together with his smooth, evocative tenor, giving a gravitas to the track that transforms it from solid to excellent. The wistful “Same We’ve Been” ties twinkling piano and treble-heavy mandolin together for a romantic vibe; “Good Country Night” turns up the honkytonk without getting abrasive, making for a song that’s just a ton of fun.
Keihani’s debut album shows a maturity unexpected in those putting out a first collection of tunes. His deft songwriting touch allows traditional instruments and well-known moods to be invigorating and interesting. His vocals allow people who might not otherwise get into the genre an in. The whole album comes off as an assured, welcoming set of tunes. Keyan Keihani may have just said hello with Eastbound, but it sounds like he’s got a lot more to say.
For me, Feist set the standard for mature female-fronted indie-pop. Charming, interesting, and occasionally deep, Feist relies on traditional songcraft as opposed to tricks or gimmicks. (No hate: I love a good gimmick.) But there’s something classic about Feist, and anybody I can find to compare must necessarily be on top of their game. It’s incredibly impressive, then, that Grace Joyner‘s debut EP has a clarity of vision and excellence of performance that would put her in Feist’s category.
What Young Fools does best is convince me. Joyner’s songs sound mature, bright, and real. They don’t feel like ephemeral pop songs or ponderous singer/songwriter tunes; these are songs with weight and heft, but also a light touch. If Joyner didn’t apply to modern indie vocal melodies and styles, these songs could easily be confused for songs much older. Opener “Other Girls” features piano, gentle drumming, and flutes for color; “Young Thing” and “Be Good” have the pad synths and separated beats of an ’80s Police-style song. (“Holy” does sound like a Killers or Bravery track, but it’s an outlier.) Their traditional style, however, makes them endearing–not cliche. Joyner’s songs are excellent because they perfectly compliment the real star: her voice.
Joyner’s alto is awesome because it’s flexible. “Other Girls” sees her using in a near-formal capacity, full of trills, swoops, and vibrato. “Be Good” sees her adapt a speak/sing style, while “Love of Mine” shows off her poppy side. But it’s “Young Thing” that shows her voice’s versatility and unique qualities. The standout performance sees Joyner getting emotional without getting theatrical, which is an impressive feat. Using little shifts in tone and register, Joyner puts on an evocative display without going into Adele-style range. It’s impressive, and more than any other track makes me excited for Joyner’s future work.
Grace Joyner’s first step out from background vocals position is an impressive one. Young Fools is an accomplished, mature, exciting release that displays impressive songwriting skills. If you’re a fan of Wye Oak, Feist, Waxahatchie, or even She and Him, you’ll find a lot to love in Grace Joyner’s work.
Even though my parents played folk bands for me when I was young, the first music I discovered on my own was pop-punk. I made it back to folk by listening to lots of pop-punk bands play acoustic songs, then moving on to singer/songwriters from there. So there’s always a sweet spot in my heart for pop-punk bands that break out the acoustic guitar. Dan Webb exactly fits that bill.
Webb usually fronts the pop-punk band Dan Webb and the Spiders, but for Eine Kleine Akustischmusik he lists his band as Dan Webb and a Spider. (Ha!) The recordings are simple: two guys with voices and acoustic guitars. There are occasional light overdubs (“Night Games,” “Long Years”). The whole 13-track thing was recorded in one (apparently quite long) night in a studio, giving it an earnest, raw feel without dipping too deeply into lo-fi. Webb’s high voice is complimented often by passionate high harmonies, which give a lot of energy to the tunes. As with anything that includes “punk band,” “one night” and “recordings” in the same sentence, these necessarily imperfect tunes have absolutely gorgeous, pure moments too. Sometimes those two things exist in the same song or phrase. It’s totally cool.
Opener “Texas” is the tune that most sounds like a singer/songwriter tune instead of a acoustic punk song; Webb’s vocal melodies fit beautifully over a lazy strum. “Fix This Place” also feels more like a singer/songwriter tune, as the somber guitar structures lend a gravitas to the tune. But just in case you worry that this is all introspective work, there is a song called “Astro Zombies.” It’s about zombies from outer space trying to exterminate humans. Yup.
If you’re into that particular style of acoustic music purveyed by pop-punkers taking a break from their regular style, Dan Webb and a Spider have got a treat for you. It will be interesting to see if Dan Webb keeps developing this songwriting style; there are some high highs that show up.
Buffalo Clover captures a timeless sound on Test Your Love. The mix of ’60s hippie rock, old-school Southern rock, motown horns, female-fronted soul, and even some gospel is a sound both fresh and familiar. The performances are crisp and tight, held together by a superb production job that lets you hear everything going on (from the vocals to the bass to the oh-so-important tambourine). It just sounds right.
You can pick any spot in the record, and you’ll find gold. Some starting points: “Come Into My House” is a ’60s San Fran rocker all the way; “The Ruse” taps some Southern Rock piano and CCR-style guitar lines; “Truthfulness” is an excellent vocal turn for both the lead and the background vocals. Buffalo Clover have clearly worked long and hard on their sound, as it comes off completely polished and tight here. J. Roddy Walston and the Business, Needtobreathe, and other bands with that vibe should find a tour partner in Buffalo Clover.
The first half of this list is marked by songs that rock out really hard. The second half is marked by songs that are outside your normal arrangements.
Rock Out / Quirk Out
1. “Station Wagon Apocalypse” – The Outfit. I’d just like to point out that this incredibly-named garage-rock tune is not even the best name on the two-song EP. (That would be “Tyrannosaurus Surfboard,” YOU’RE WELCOME.) As to the tune itself: Big drums, big guitars, big vocals, big fun.
2. “Be Cool” – Cancers. Cancers is the missing link that makes me think Sleigh Bells might not have been robots from the future and instead were just really, really hyped up ’90s kids.
3. “Last Forever” – Fenech-Soler. As a bassist myself, I appreciate it when a song is so thoroughly dominated by bass that the guitar and keys just kind of follow along. When those songs are also jubilant dance tracks with irresistible shout-it-out vocals, well. Well, well.
4. “Metronome” – The Yuseddit Brothers. There was a brand of ’90s grunge/slacker-rock that took pride in sounding like it was kind of underwater. This low-slung groove has that fuzzy-edged production value to match the not-so-ambitious tempo and tone. Chillax, y’all.
5. “Bright Eyes, Black Soul” – The Lovers Key. Sometimes I hear a song outside of genres I usually cover and think, “WHOA WHY DON’T I LISTEN TO THAT GENRE MORE.” Probably because I’m hearing an elite artist, but I don’t know. Anyway, The Lovers Key has me interested in aggressive Blue Eyed Soul with some serious motown horns stacked up on it. This makes me think of a James Bond movie. Can’t really explain that either.
6. “All in a Day’s Work” – Horizontal Hold. As a mid-point between rocking out and quirking out, I submit Horizontal Hold, which is out-Pixie-ing the Pixies at the moment.
7. “You Are My Summer (feat. Coleman Hell and Jayme)” – La+ch. This is a perfect electro-pop tune. In musical world that I ran, this would be the big hit of the summer. It’s got Icona Pop infectiousness and Cobra Starship restraint. What’s not to love?
8. “Old K.B.” – The Solars. Speaking of motown influences, here’s a piano-pop tune fronted by a guy who sounds like Jack White that features organ and horns. This thing grooves way more than piano-pop fans are probably comfortable with. THAT’S OK!
9. “Unrevenged” – Floating Action. Rubbery bass, ethereal background vocals, driving percussion? Clearly indie-pop, but not any like you’ve imagined recently. Has me all stoked for the album.
10. “I’m To Blame” – Anand Wilder and Maxwell Kardon. After sending us a folky tune for the first single, the second one is a incredible mash-up of jazz trumpet, Radiohead vocals, Muse craziness, and a totally rad guitar solo. It is, in a word, different.
11. “It Doesn’t Even Matter” – Onward Chariots! If the Kings of Convenience had more quirky pop arrangements, it might end up something like this.
12. “Rockingham” – Kasey Keller Brass Band. 58 seconds of found sound, gentle synths, and meandering acoustic guitar paint a sonic picture extremely well. Very cool stuff here.
13. “Shadow’s Song” – Foxes in Fiction. Chillwave + Owen Pallett? TOTALLY THERE, MY FRIENDS.
Here are some neat things that are happening in the music world.
Singer/songwriter Aaron Hale (whose music IC is quite fond of) is now part of The Orphan Care Network as the head of artistry and advocacy. Helping orphans through art? I would say that’s pretty much in line with everything I want to be about. He is currently booking house shows in the Texas/Arkansas/Tennessee/Alabama area. If you want to host/attend a house show, get more information, or support him financially, you can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Andrew Judah is the best singer/songwriter you’ve never heard of (and I hadn’t heard of, until recently). He’s put up all his incredibly complex, unique and engaging work for free on Bandcamp so that you can get to know him better ahead of his upcoming release Monster (which I am absolutely thrilled for). So if you don’t feel like supporting artists but wants lots of music, this one’s for you!
Julianna Barwick and Dogfish Head Brewery are two of my favorites at their respective games. (Julianna Barwick might be the only person in her loop-one-voice-into-dozens game, but the approval still holds!) They’ve teamed up to make a beer and an EP named Rosabi; the EP includes the sounds of the beer being made. The beer, however, does not come with a download of the album (wishful thinking!). You can pick it up wherever Dogfish Head is sold; it just went on sale 6/20, so hopefully there’s some left at your local store of choice.
Youtube just got way more music-friendly: Paste and Music Vault are now hosting their own channels. The Music Vault contains Daytrotter sessions, as well as a veritable treasure trove of historical finds. Go nuts, y’all.
Soundsupply continues to hone their niche in the punk/emo/hardcore world by featuring Say Anything and the beloved-by-pop-punkers Allison Weiss. (Allison Weiss is also beloved by Independent Clauses for being one of the most forward-thinking businesspersons in music.) Go get tons of music for relatively cheap and support artists!!
It was bound to happen at some point: a service called ARENA has busted out a “rent-to-own” plan for music. I have no idea whether this will catch on, but there is a quantifiable difference between a song I played once for research and listening to “Wild One” by Flo Rida 30 times because I run to it. Will keep you posted, if anything happens because of this service.
Speaking of running, IT’S TIME FOR THE RUNHUNDRED MONTHLY LIST!!! –Stephen Carradini
The Top 10 Workout Songs for July 2014
This month’s top 10 list plays host to an eclectic bunch of established and upstart musical acts. On the international front, you’ll find a reggae hit from the Canadian band Magic and a platinum single from Norwegian duo Nico & Vinz. Elsewhere country artists Jarrod Niemann and Lady Antebellum document their nights on the town. Finally,you can check out the latest from newcomers Tune-Yards and Charli XCX alongside chart regulars Katy Perry and Shakira.
No matter where your interests lie on the musical spectrum, there should be something for you below. So, if you’re looking for a few new tunes to liven up your summer workouts, this month’s playlist will give you 10 great places to start.
Here’s the full list, according to votes placed at Run Hundred–the web’s most popular workout music blog.
To find more workout songs, folks can check out the free database at RunHundred.com. Visitors can browse the song selections there by genre, tempo, and era—to find the music that best fits with their particular workout routine. –Chris Lawhorn
Clara Barker‘s songwriting is impeccable on Fine Art and the Breslins. The Isle of Man (!) resident’s folk and acoustic indie-pop tunes have a classic songcraft flair about them; she breathes life into rhythms and arrangements that would seem like tropes in others’ hands.
She’s able to do this in part because of charming moods: it’s just fun to listen to tunes like “Angel” and “Love (Fill My Heart).” Both are happy songs that make me bob my head, clap my hands, and sing along. Are the strum and percussive patterns familiar? Yep. But that’s what makes it so immediately lovable. She also dabbles in melancholy, Verve Pipe-style Brit-pop (“Dodging Bullets,” “Seth’s Song”), which is a nice change of pace.
Her lovely voice also helps get through any complaints about formal songwriting. Her perky, buoyant voice gives her a bit of a manic pixie dream girl vibe. It puts her in league with other beloved indie singer-songwriters like Ingrid Michaelson and She and Him. This is nowhere as prevalent as “The Bees Song,” which is a twee love song that includes a toy piano (or similar sound). In short, Clara Barker’s songs are comfortable, lovable, and fun to listen to. I’m behind anyone who can hit that trifecta.
Bon Iver may sparked a surge in mopey folk singers (whom I love, let it be known), but it’s good to know that there are still bands who think that folk music is wild, crazy, and a little dangerous. Push play on The Loose Canyons‘ Strivers’ Row and you’ll get immediately introduced to the raucous “If We Don’t Know By Now,” which sees the band blasting forward with train-whistle rhythms, energy galore, and a slicing harmonica. The next track lets the guitarist rip off a blazing guitar solo in-between gruff, growling vocals. Tom Waits lite plus The Low Anthem? Yes please.
Even when the band slows things down they retain that ragged flair. “My Tendencies” is technically slower and led by a female vocalist, but this just means that they sound like they’re luring you into a back alley somewhere. And they still manage to get an overdriven guitar and wailing harmonica into the arrangement.
By the time you get to “7th Day,” the vocal-centric, harmony-friendly, even sweet tune seems like it’s coming from some other band. It shows the impressive diversity of Loose Canyons; they can fully inhabit their moods and shed them just as quickly. They circle the wagons for a final track, where all the moods (tenderness, gruffness, instrumental prowess, vocal-centricness) come together. “John Lennon” is a pretty impressive track, if only for the amount of things it crams in. I’m still partial to those raucous first two tracks, but that’s a personal preference thing. The Loose Canyons are great on each of these five songs, and you’d do well to check them out if you’re into folk music.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.