I can’t stop listening to The Collection’s EP, which I reviewed two days ago. It’s a good thing that there’s a video I can post to keep this album, which is quickly moving up my “best of year” chart, as forefront in your mind as it is in mine. Here’s “Stones,” by Luke Thompson. The weirdly casual feel (“yeah, I chill in church lofts with 10 of my musical friends all the time. what up?”) fits perfectly with the off-the-cuff earnestness of David Wimbish’s lyrics and melodies. Enjoy.
I celebrated the sober moments of Kris Orlowski‘s Fremont Abbey EP as “tunes that a man could make a career out of purveying,” while downplaying the more upbeat sections. I hate to write the same review twice, but I have the same response to Orlowski’s Warsaw. The gravitas imported into the darker tunes makes them memorable; the amorphous qualities of the happier tunes render them pallid.
“Way You Are,” the early release from this four-song offering, is a slow-building force. Instead of his previous acoustic guitar and strings, Orlowski employs a low-distortion, maximum-low-end electric with a bass/drums rhythm section to create an earthy, low-slung sound. The rumbling toms and treble-less guitars combine into a powerful beast, which is then given a direction by the haunting vocal performances of both Orlowski and his back-up singers. The arrangement is impeccable, and the overall effect is dramatic and immediate.
I would have titled the EP Way You Are, because “Warsaw” is a pleasant but undifferentiated tune that tells me nothing about Orlowski as a songwriter except that he has a fondness for pedal steel that extends beyond country music. “Soldier On” is a mite better, in that it employs a similar guitar tone as “Way You Are,” but there’s not really anything else to praise or insult about it when considering the force of “Way You Are” and “Oh No.”
The distant organ and spacious arrangement of “Oh No” evoke high points of the best dusty, wide-open-landscape tracks. The insistent drumming pushes the weary single-note picking ahead, while Orlowski holds dreary court with his vocals. The acoustic guitar is placed low in the mix, foregrounding the tension between the urgent and laconic. It’s like Bruce Springsteen on a Walkmen kick (but far too peppy for it to be the reverse, even if it is on the darker side of things), and it’s worth a second listen.
There’s something to be said for the fact that “Way You Are” and “Oh No” both break the 5:30 mark, while “Soldier On” and “Warsaw” both clock in exactly at 3:38. Orlowski is still playing both sides of the coin, but I have yet to be sold on his more perky stuff. His darker material shows a much closer attention to atmosphere, texture and arrangement; it engages me as a listener.
If Orlowski can bring that level of detail to his pop moments, they would be just as good as his heavier singer/songwriter material—it just hasn’t happened yet. Here’s to hoping that happens; “Way You Are” is really, really good. Grab that song here for free.
Once in a blue moon I will come across a opening track so arresting that I start telling people about the album before I’ve even heard the whole first song. The Collection, the nom de plume of songwriter David Wimbish, has put out just such a song in “Dirt”: before the song ended, I was Facebooking my Jon Foreman-loving friend to say I’d found him a new favorite band. This ultimately turned out to be untrue: Foreman doesn’t ever end up yelling at the top of his lungs over his acoustic-led tunes, as Wimbish does in the electrifying “Lazarus” and powerful “Leper.” But it’s “Dirt” that glued me to this album.
“Dirt” is a perfect opener not because it’s flawless, but because it encapsulates everything I want to say about the Collection’s self-titled EP in a single unit. The first sound in the song is a poignant banjo melody, and the second is Wimbish’s gentle tenor vocals. The banjo underscores the fact that this is alt-folk of the Sufjan/Freelance Whales variety, but the sobriety of the melody evokes the gravitas of Damien Rice. The horns, strings and everything else that compose the EP’s extravagant arrangements show up later in the tune.
Wimbish’s pleasant, evocative vocals are a bit of a red herring, as he can use his voice in a number of different ways: quiet singing, falsetto, loud singing, full-bodied roaring, all-out screaming. This diversity of vocals is necessary due to the variety of emotions that Wimbish displays throughout the incredible 7-song EP: calm confidence, fear, desperation, enthusiasm, hope. Most of Wimbish’s songs form a lyrical arc, starting in one emotion and ending in another; this lets the music and lyrics unfold in a symbiotic relationship that creates incredibly satisfying tunes and enables the huge sweeps in emotion to be natural instead of forced.
But Wimbish isn’t just a brilliant lyricist: he also played literally every instrument (except a couple guest spots in “Jericho”) on this album, marking him an instrumental virtuoso that can play piano, horns, accordion, strings, flute, drums, auxiliary percussion and all manner of stringed strummers and pluckers. That’s absolutely incredible.
His melody and songwriting skills are top-shelf as well. “Stones” is a chipper tune that puts horns and glockenspiel to charming use, while the unusual strings of “Fever” create a brilliant foundation for a melody. “Jericho” lets a beautiful piano elegy lead the tune, while the aforementioned “Lazarus” has more adrenaline in its folky soul than I do most days. The raw emotional power of “Leper” is absolutely stunning. (Wimbish has ripped a page from the Page France book in naming all his tunes single words.)
As I alluded to earlier, it’s not perfect. It’s easily the most exciting display of raw songwriting talent that I’ve heard this year, but it still needs refining. Wimbish is prone to big, slab-like string-and-horn arrangements; think of the over-arching orchestra on Coldplay’s track “Viva La Vida” and you’ll get why “Dirt” isn’t my song of the year. He also has a tendency to over-arrange; “Dirt” could have stood with far less instruments, because the melody and lyrics are so incredibly powerful. Wimbish has a problem that I have rarely, if ever, encountered in ten years of reviewing: his lyrics and melodies are so good that they actually ask for less things happening than more. A stripped-down version of this EP would be just as good, if not better, than this full-out version. And you’ve just read how I’ve been gushing about the full-out version.
This is the most exciting album I’ve heard all year, and it’s almost December. If Wimbish keeps on this tack, his future music is going to be absolutely incredible. I’ve been listening to this for a month to make sure I’m not just blowing smoke, and I’m not. The Collection EP is a must-listen for everyone interested in folk, pop, singer/songwriter, and just good music. Sign me up on the “huge fan” list for The Collection.
Chris North, who previously fronted folksters The Points North, has a new dream pop project under his own name called The Story of My Light. In a James Blake/Bon Iver synth-laden era of dreamy music, North sticks mostly to acoustic guitar and reverb (lots of echo) to achieve his intended mood.
He also breaks from the former pair by having a full, low voice that expresses in its cracks and breaks, not in falsetto warbling. The result is a 9-song, 25-minute collection that deftly balances the weightlessness of dream state with the heft of real instruments (saxophone on “Liberation Sound,” low flute on “Cold Company”). There are some ups and downs throughout the EP, as North doesn’t balance all the parts of the sound against his vocals perfectly yet, but the overall effect is good. An intriguing starting point for future releases.
I praised The Pizza Thieves‘ “Real American Boy” as a post-Pixies wonder, and their debut follows up on that promise. Hippopotamus employs skronked-out surf rock guitars, reverb, howling vocals, and propulsive drums to wrest a mighty, fidelity-irrelevant noise out of just two members. A surprising amount of keys and acoustic guitar (“Skeleton Bride,” “Run, Run, Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Rabbit Run!”) could point in a future direction, but the majority of this one is gleeful thrash and mash.
The amount you’ll enjoy Hippopotamus is directly proportional to how much of your listening time is spent to bands like Ty Segall and Thee Oh Sees; at 55 minutes, casual fans of surf-damaged garage rock will check out long before the 7-minute “Vitrification/Pt. 2″ (check the intentional nod/debt owed to “Where is My Mind”) wraps up. But it’s a fun blast for as much as you can take.
I’ve been going through a personal pop-punk revival as of late, but I’ve found the outer extremes of what my current self enjoys in Stream City‘s Welcome Paramnesia. The hyperkinetic snare-drum gallop and mashing guitar strum that the band starts uses as a foundation is standard SoCal fare, but the Danish band incorporates touches of metal (“Shores of Lethe,” “Hello Gravity”), folky melodic interludes (“Paramnesia”), faux-Gothic harpsichord (“In Limbo”) and Irish/klezmer/old world traditional violin melodies (“Fisherman’s Tale”) to differentiate from other bands. The result is a varied six-song effort that plays out like a less-morbid AFI or a less drama-intensive My Chemical Romance at twice the speed.
Standards are difficult to do well: with a well-established ethos behind the song, it’s a daunting task to appropriate that backstory creatively or entirely rework its history for a new era. When that standard is a song that everyone knows, it gets even harder—and that’s why lots of Christmas albums are stinkers. Thankfully, Repeat the Sounding Joy is not one of those albums.
The Good Shepherd Band has done two things very right: chose primarily little-known or under-appreciated Christmas songs, and played to its musical strengths. When the band sticks to these tactics, the songs are great successes. When the members stray, things do not go as well.
It’s harder to mess up “Who Is This So Weak and Helpless” and “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” than “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” or “Joy to the World” because the former histories aren’t as storied as the latter’s. The band can let the obscure songs land in what (to the listener) feels most natural to The Good Shepherd Band: melodic, quiet treatments orchestrated in subtle Sufjan-esque touches.
This style creates the high highs of the album: standout “Who Is This” features a gorgeous oboe, the pristine rendition of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” builds off gentle piano and guitar, and “Long Expected Jesus” strikes the right balance of traditional and modern rhythms within the tune. These tunes are reverent, expertly arranged, and relevant. I can already tell that they will be worth revisiting each year.
When the band goes for unusual arrangements and/or more common songs, the outcomes are less successful. “The Seven Joys of Mary” features traditional English folksong rhythmic patterns and a children’s choir; the juxtaposition against the modern indie of the first two tracks is jarring and unpleasant. “The Lord at First Did Adam Make” is a crooning, ’50s-style rockabilly tune, which is even more of a head-scratcher.
It feels that “Joy to the World” was turned into a 9:00-minute epic (complete with brash choir and triumphal horns) primarily because the band felt that it had to leave its mark on the song. The band has proven that it can make more riveting tunes in a shorter time and a different style, making this one stick out like a sore thumb. Furthermore, the choir is used differently and to much better effect in the slow-burning, powerful “I Wonder as I Wander.”
“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” falls into the “we have make this our own” trap too, as the vocal syncopation is off-putting and clashes with the rest of the tasteful, restrained arrangement style that marks their best work. This makes the odd vocals all the more a bummer.
The Good Shepherd Band can certainly be commended for this: they go big or go home. Repeat The Sounding Joy has some brilliant highs and terrible lows, but no forgettable tunes. I can thoroughly recommend 2/3rds of this album (especially “Who Is This So Weak and Helpless,” “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” and “I Wonder as I Wander”) to any lover of Christmas tunes; there are just a few renditions that you have to watch out for. Hopefully there will be a second version of this album, giving us even more goodness with a few tweaks in their methodology.
Stereo Soul Future‘s Ghost in the Night caught my attention with a bouncy, ’70s pop vibe similar to ELO in opener “If I…” The album continues in that grooves for the first five tunes of its 12-track, 40-minute run time, including the back-porch chill of “Sunday Morning” and finishing with the gently propelled lead single “The Freeze.”
From there, the band opens up its sound a bit more, experimenting with Simon + Garfunkel-esque pop (“Unmake the Oddity”), piano-pop tunes (“Killer Klown”), rock’n’roll (“Watching Circles”) and Fleetwood Mac-esque dark pop tunes (“Sinking Stone,” “Whisperers”). Some go better than others: “Unmake the Oddity” is very pretty, even if it has little to do with the rest of the album.
Stereo Soul Future has a bright future if it can take all its disparate ideas from the back half of the album and run them through their well-established ’70s pop filter from the first half of the album. Right now the thing feels a little bit like a good radio station: all songs that are worth hearing, but with little connecting them.
I much prefer Colorado to Cozumel. Everything seems clearer, cleaner and more alive up in the mountains. I know that some prefer the easy pace of tropical living, but I associate it with sunburns and itchy sand. I relax much easier on a cabin porch in the woods.
Singer/songwriter Laurel Brauns’ blog is titled Indie Girl in a Mountain Town, and that aesthetic informs all of House of Snow. The album possesses a clear, crisp, refreshing sound that reminds me of my time in Colorado Springs: relaxed, unhurried, simple. From beginning to end, the album ripples with a pleasant, confident vibe. It’s the soundtrack to the montage of good moments before the real trouble of the film sets in.
Brauns’ songwriting pulls from inspiration from the folk sounds expected of a rural, high mountains community, but there’s also a lot of modern singer/songwriter mixed in her sound. Highlight “Westfall” sounds more like Brandi Carlile than Mumford and Sons, and “Kaleidoscope Eyes” is very much the same. “Puppy Love” draws more from a ’50s pop groove than anything else. “Dreams” is reminiscent of angrier singer/songwriters like Ani DiFranco, Fiona Apple, and even Damien Rice.
Throughout the tapestry of tunes weaves a few consistent threads: acoustic guitar, hefty string contributions, and Brauns’ dusky alto voice. The strings are the most surprisingly element of the sound, as they are employed in very different ways, from the forceful thrust of “Dreams” to the graceful swoon of the title track. The album would certainly not be the same without them.
Brauns’ alto is most often the counterpoint to the strings, delivering melodies that ping off the strings and hook in the listener’s mind. She does have elements of more traditional country and bluegrass singers (Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, etc.) in her voice, but her songs are varied enough that she doesn’t get pigeonholed into anyone’s footsteps.
House of Snow is a wonderful listen; in an age where the album is getting less and less love, this one is a whole and complete piece. There are standout tunes, but they sound even better in the context of the whole work. That’s something that I admire in a release, which is why I am so enamored with Laurel Brauns efforts here. If you’re up for a folksy, charming album, this one should be on your shortlist.
This hypnotic, entrancing video somehow fits with Joakim’s weird and wild dance track; I seriously stopped thinking about everything else in my life and just focused on this video the first time I saw it. YOU KNOW HOW HARD THAT IS. But this video makes it so easy.
Robert Deeble’s gentle, knowing acoustic shuffle on “Heart Like Feathers” feels like putting on a warm sweater. Also mentioned in the press was “inspired by G.K. Chesterton,” which is pretty much an auto-listen in these parts.
PJ Bond sounds like a more desperate Rocky Votolato (!) and that’s because of his punk-rawk background (phew). He’s playing acoustic tunes now and circling the globe, but he stopped off in Lynchburg, VA, long enough to record a live take of “I’m in a Bad Way.” That link jumps to the MP3, hosted by Alt Press.
Awkward Age‘s Demo 2011 is four punk tunes in 8 minutes and 1 second. The band isn’t into economy because it doesn’t know what it’s doing: the three-piece features ex-members of The Knockdown, New Bruises, Ghost Tales and Independent Clauses (yes, an old writer for this magazine!). These vets cram the material that would compose a whole three- or four-minute song in younger hands into two. The result is an EP that rules.
I’ve been a sucker for a drum intro ever since I heard Dave Douglas hammering away on Relient K’s “Kick-Off,” which opened The Anatomy of the Tongue in Cheek—the first rock album I ever heard. It is unsurprising that I fell in love with the pounding bass/tom/snare intro to “New Teen Fiction.” The rest of the song sets the template for the other tunes: block-chord guitars, uncomplicated bass lines, forceful yet hooky melodies and an irrepressible energy.
“Lucky Man” is a perfect eff you song (literally), and I can only imagine how much fun it is for audiences to yell it out live. “It Never Stops” sounds most like a snare-kick pop-punk song, and that’s totally fine. These guys are self-admittedly about ten years past high school, so this is the sound they were hearing when they were hanging out in the halls. It sounds authentic.
It’s only eight minutes, but it’s a great eight minutes. If you’re into punk, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be all over Demo 2011.