I love compilation albums, SXSW, live recordings and serious music. So it’s no surprise that I would love New Media Recordings‘ Selections from NMR Live! Showcase SXSW, which combines all of the aforementioned. NMR is a recording studio and production facility in Fort Worth, Texas, and it shows: this live recording is impressively captured and preserved. So those who hate live recordings for the bad sound quality, fear not.
On to the music: NMR has given us 25 songs from 8 bands spread over an hour and a half. It’s not one-sitting listening. However, it is a good introduction to these artists, as each gets more than the usual single shot to tell their story. Spooky Folk opens the comp with “Polaroid,” which is one of the loudest tunes on the album (and subsequently one of the most difficult to mix – so take my previous note on “impressively captured” with a grain of salt on this track) by easily the loudest of the bands featured. “Polaroid” has an Arcade Fire-esque grandeur, as charging guitars and pounding drums are met with soaring vocals and swooping strings. It’s a great song to kick off the album with, as it sets a high bar for quality.
Most of the other bands meet the challenge. The bulk of the music on the comp is of the serious singer/songwriter type: a Damien Jurado song is fittingly covered, and I thought several times of stately anguish of Songs:Ohia throughout. Jeremy Buller, who played the aformentioned “Oh Death Art With Me” cover, plays especially powerfully on these recordings: The intimate “A Gift and Growing It” creates a gripping mood and expounds on it for six minutes. His “Untitled” is even more sparse, but no less riveting in its mood.
You may remember that I love everything about The Angelus. They contribute stripped-down versions of their dark, foreboding tunes; instead of acoustic guitar only, it’s electric guitar and voice. It fits incredibly well for the Angelus’ tunes while showing a whole new side of the tunes.
Don and Curtis of The Theater Fire, The Migrant, and Clint Niosi contribute more upbeat, often-major-key tunes, but these are by no means throwaway pop songs. The Theater Fire members created a storytellers’ mood to spin tales about life from Cain’s perspective, the thought processes of a rebellious rambler, and a Magnetic Fields cover (“All My Little Words”). The Migrant’s tunes are imported with weight through the vocal performances and lyrics more so than the acoustic guitar work–another line drawn to Jurado. Clint Niosi’s clear vocals and precise picking (“Wild West”) nearest appropriated what we consider folk these days.
The electronic music wild a capella music of Dreamboat Crusaderz and the ominous constructions of Weird Weeds didn’t catch my ear, but six out of eight on a comp is a high success rate. The creators of Selections from NMR Live! Showcase SXSW have a well-tuned ear, and this release is very worth your time if you’re into the genre.
Lord Buffalo‘s sparse, dark, acoustic-led folk slinks about in the shadows of the Western imagination. It’s the sort of grim, foreboding sound that I’m accustomed to attributing to Appalachia, but Lord Buffalo is from Austin, TX. The band pulls off its vision with a convincing control of atmosphere and the blessing of a low, rough baritone voice to sell the sound of their self-titled EP.
The band puts all their musical efforts to great use in “Sycamore, Pt. 2 (Glass Hills),” where a slowly-pounded drum becomes menacing with repetition under a whirling, churning crescendo of sound. It’s the sound of a revenge Western film, right about the time that the hero decides he’s going to give in to his darker side and do the deed. Then highlight track “Cold Bones” would be the next scene, where he sets out to make the villain pay: the electric guitar pairs with a wailing violin, distant pad synths and more thumping drums to create a majestic, determined, traveling feeling.
But I could be jumping the gun on that one: the eerie fourth track is called “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” and talks about “You, the devil and me.” (It has rhythms that seem to mimic the pace of traveling by horse; or I could be importing that on there, but either way, the song works.) By the time “Face in the Grass” appears, a close listener should be downright worn out from all the activity. And, so kindly, Lord Buffalo obliges with a quiet, weary, almost-reverent tune to close out the set. (How it feels when revenge is done, but isn’t really satisfying, perhaps?)
It’s a downright powerful set, spanning a wide range of emotions. I’m positively thrilled by this EP, and I look forward to what Lord Buffalo has to offer us next. Highly recommended.
If you don’t have a chill summer indie-pop record yet, I’m here to recommend The Dronings‘ LCD. In 9 tracks spread over 21 minutes, Matthew Curtis (Second Act Overture) has put together an inviting, relaxing album of comfortably off-the-cuff tunes. There’s ukulele throughout, clapping, walking-pace tempos, some found-sound bird noises for atmosphere, and a guy/girl duet. “For Sam, Who Painted Me a Picture (Part 2)” includes a moment where Curtis breaks into a laugh, and LCD is the charming sort of album where that accentuates the likability of the song instead of sounding like a ploy.
“Remember Me (Part 1)” is a great little interlude that pairs a bell kit with the sound of rain and distant thunder; seeing as a lazy summer storm is one of my favorite July activities, I’m thoroughly down with this. “Remember Me (Part 2)” is a highlight not just due to its first part; Curtis sings gently and quietly over a swaying guitar strum, and the intimate tune comes together beautifully. None of the tunes here are all that complicated, but Curtis pulls them off with a casual confidence that makes them arresting. It’s a rare EP that can pull off intimate and carefree, but The Dronings have that down on LCD.
Jonas Friddle mentions a momentous day of “when I hit my stride” in two songs on Belle de Louisville as somewhere far off. I’m happy to report to Mr. Friddle that the day is here: Belle de Louisville and its companion Synco Pony show him in full form. Folk artists appear all the time, but a truly new voice in folk is a much rarer event. That’s why readers everywhere (and Friddle!) should rejoice: these two albums can and should put Friddle in the conversation with established leaders like Josh Ritter, Joe Pug and Justin Townes Earle.
Yes, I did mention two albums above: Friddle effectively released a double album as a debut. You can’t say audacious any louder than that (except, I guess, with a triple album). And instead of being bloated and selfish, both are wonderfully refreshing listens. You can even listen to them back to back for just over an hour of harmonious, melodic, banjo-led, instrument-stuffed, clever folk tunes. I’ve done it several times in my travels this summer.
They do have slightly different personalities, but they add up to a whole for Friddle. Belle de Louisville is a bit more personal and emotional, showcasing a wry sentimentality. Opener “A String to a Bell” has a major key banjo base, but legato strings and vocals are layered over it for a pensive feel. “It’s a handful of give me/a mouthful of much obliged/it greets me in the evenin’ and the mornin, when I rise,” Friddle’s lithe, warm tenor relates. This push and pull of sadness (the hunger is always there) and contentment (the hunger is always fed) goes all through Belle.
The title track has a beautiful vocal melody, while “Jordan Am a Hard Road to Travel” showcases his hoedown folk abilities that will be revisited with the hilarious “Women, They’re So Small and Fancy.” “Rockingham Cindy” is the killer cut here, with Friddle forlornly expressing his love for a wild woman that won’t stop drinking whiskey; it’s played on guitar with a slide instead of his more common banjo, and it’s evocative as anything I’ve heard this year. Every tune is worth hearing, for its clear and strong melodies, satisfying arrangements and incredibly solid yet varied song structures.
Synco Pony dials back his emotive side and plays up his observational/critical/protest side. Belle did have “Montcoal, West Virginia” as a protest tune against big coal, but it was an emotive appeal instead of a critical one. Similarly, Synco Pony has the touching “The Ballad of Babyface and Too Tall Sue,” which is a love song by way of third party storytelling (instead of introspective emoting). This critical lens enables tunes like “Wall Street Rag” (self-explanatory), “George Walker” (a clever tune addressed empathetically to Dubya), and “Tom Brokaw Blues” (a lament for the state of our world via a critique of the news we want to hear).
In addition to the critical lens, the music on Synco Pony features less stereotypical folky strum and focuses more on ragtime, blues and fingerpicked melodies. Album highlight “Boredom” is the best example of the dichotomy: Friddle lays on the irony thick, but not in a sarcastic or mean way. “We may all die of boredom when we stand before the Lord/singing, ‘Hallelujah, I got the highest score,” he sings in the chorus. Friddle’s from Chicago, and “Boredom” tells a story about the Cubs–since Friddle tells us that he likes the Bears in his live preface to “The Hipster,” I’m guessing that he’s poking fun at himself as much as other Chicago sports fans fictional and real. It’s that sort of reflexive charm that gets me about Friddle’s music: it tones down the seriousness with playfulness and vice versa. No matter what he’s doing musically, he keeps the ship at an even keel (without turning boring). It’s a delicate dance, but Friddle nails it.
The overall winner on the two albums is “When I Hit My Stride,” the final track on Belle de Louisville. Friddle strums his guitar chords, accompanied by a thumping tom and call-and-response vocals. The melody is infectious, and the lyrics are about something we can all relate to: we’re gonna get “there” someday, when it all goes right. When it breaks out into a round with Friddle singing his tune and the rest of the group clapping and singing “This Little Light of Mine,” it becomes downright exuberant–and then the New Orleans jazz band breaks out. It’s the perfect encapsulation of Friddle’s magic: a bunch of people together, acknowledging the difficulties of life and exuberantly celebrating the possibilities past that. I listen to music for that reminder, and Friddle provides it in spades. I said it yesterday, but it applies again today: if that’s not an album you want to hear, this blog can’t help you very much. You need to hear these albums. They’re incredible, and easily contenders for best of the year.
The unusual title of Where UFOs Go To Die did not prepare me for 4H Royalty‘s music. I had reasonably expected some country music from the band name, but the album title threw me for a loop. Was it going to be goofy? Was it all going to be tongue-in-cheek like opener “Accordion Bus”? This band contains the guitarist of post-rock duo Lafayette (one of my favorite IC bands ever), so how does that work out?
But then “Statutes of Limitation” hits, and all the fears clear up quickly. 4H Royalty is a gritty, workingman’s rock’n'roll/country band, creating timeless, powerful tunes that would appeal to fans of The Hold Steady as well as Ryan Adams. 9Bullets once described Glossary as a “no-frills, unabashed rock n’ roll records with just enough elements of classic pop and country to keep me honest.” If you flip the rock’n'roll and country references in that sentence, it’s a perfect description of 4H Royalty. Those guitars don’t twang that often, but the voices kinda do, and all these songs are about ending up back in your rural hometown unexpectedly (that hometown being the titular location).
These aren’t woe-is-me ballads, though: the lyrics here are top-shelf storytelling. I don’t often mention lyrics in an album, because 75% of the time they’re inessential (la’s would suffice) and 15% of the time they’re slightly above average. But that other ten percent is money, and bands with meaningful lyrics are usually tagged as very important music. So be it for 4H Royalty. Here’s a clip conflating women and their namesakes that knocked me out: “Mercy, Sherry, Sage, and Rosemary/Jasmine, Brandy, and Hope/return me to sender when I start to remember/all the virtues, spices and liquors of home.” Or this one: “Brilliant social climbers know to take elevators, and I am neither for taking the stairs.” Both of those come from highlight track “Virtues, Spices and Liquors,” which is going on all my summer mixtapes in that spot where you’re trying to get the mood from “driving songs” to “chill out tunes.” It fits right in there.
It’s hard to explain the scruffy, gritty music that 4H Royalty makes. “Gritty” and “scruffy” in this case don’t mean junky garage rock, but still: their tunes have some dirt and use on them. It’s the difference between a gleaming new truck (a large number of country bands) and one that’s been used, loved and wouldn’t be traded for the world (4H Royalty). “The Black Hornet Rides Again” is a rock instrumental that sounds like the Southern Rock equivalent of a surf jam like “Wipeout!” “Fall Off the Face of the Earth with Me” is a weary love song that starts off with the phrase, “It’s times like this you really the effects the brain drain has had on this town…” “Soon Enough” is a jaded, mid-tempo kiss-off tune; depending on your point of view, “Itchy Blood” is an guardedly optimistic or kinda desperate “I still love you” note to a woman who may or may not still remember the narrator.
And it’s that ambiguity that makes Where UFOs Go to Die such a compelling listen. The band nails everything they go for (with the exception of the aforementioned confusing opener), leaving tons of space for the vocals and lyrics to take over and do their thing. The result is an album that showcases both a brilliant lyricist and veteran musicians (Lafayette’s Andrew Porter plays bass and organ, while Zach Boddicker was in the late great Drag the River). These songs are so tight that they’re past the “we got this” phase and into “how do we confidently show musically that we don’t got this in our lives?” And they do that here; it’s one thing to tell passion, but it’s another thing to tell overly optimistic, confused, underconfident, overcompensating, real passion. If that’s not an album you want to hear, this blog can’t help you much. This is easily a contender for album of the year.
The Future Elements is a group of writers and musicians from all over the world (but primarily India) who love “shoegaze, ambient, modern classical, drone and experimental music.” Those genres, along with post-rock, form the bulk of their 35-song (!) debut compilation album Elements 01. Since it’s almost three hours of music, it’s gonna take you a while to listen to, but it’s pretty worth it. If you sub out the Absent Hearts’ misplaced modern rock track, the quality of the compilation is quite high.
The majority of the compilation is of instrumentals, and its roughly organized around genre: the post-rock stuff with full-band set-ups is at the front, followed by more electronic takes on post-rock, which segues into modern classical, then ending in the full ambient section. The ambient section takes up most of the back half of the compilation. The least compelling work is the modern classical works, but that’s only because the rest of the ambient and post-rock stuff is just beautiful. Picking out individual tracks from the three-hour mass is a bit silly, so I’ll leave you to that yourself. This is a great, great release, and I look forward to what bands the label chooses for its releases. They’ve displayed a well-tuned ear so far.
If at some point you see me write on this blog, “I’m moving to Australia,” do not doubt the veracity of that statement. I am apparently enamored of every musical thing that comes out of the land down under. My latest Aussie crush is Monks of Mellonwah, who play high-drama rock, reminiscent of Muse without the keys. The band’s four-song EP Neurogenesis features a lot of soaring, spacy guitars, heavy drumming and melodic vocals. Highlight “Kyoto” adds a distorted bass into the mix, meshing with the furious drumming and soaring guitar work for a killer tune. The intro especially grabs attention. The rest of the album isn’t as frenetic as “Kyoto”: “Neverending Spirit” brings a neo-reggae vibe to the table in the guitars and vocals, while the title track keeps the chilled-out vibes going. “You Shine” is a ballad of sorts, but one with pounding drums. The EP is a nice introduction to the group, and “Kyoto” is a keeper.
The remixes within largely replace the gentle evocative nature of the tunes with heavy beats and propulsive rhythms, which works excellently for the Gregory Pepper remix of the already-highly-rhythmic “Stirring Bones.” But the MadadaM remix of “Beltone” gives the tune a dubby vibe that just doesn’t sit right with me, given the sparse, tense original. The rest of the tunes fall somewhere between the two: The Adverteyes remix of “Slave to the Deep” plays up that tunes jagged separation for a jarring track, while Live Action Fezz and Skene turn in takes on “No Reservation” and “This Unknown” (respectively) that work well. If you’re into electronic music, this will be a fun listen.
The Killers’ “Somebody Told Me” (and by extension Hot Fuss) was at the fore of the dance-rock craze, so it made sense for people to ignore the fact that half the album can’t be danced to at all (“All These Things That I’ve Done,” “Andy You’re a Star,” “Everything Will Be Alright,” among others). Instead, the Killers just wrote good, hook-laden pop-rock songs. The The The Thunder has a similar thing going on in their debut All at Once: there are some danceable moments that are easily latched onto, but the majority of this is indie rock.
“Indie rock” quickly becoming a synonym for “melodic rock that wants to be taken with some amount of seriousness,” and that holds for All At Once. The eight songs here feature a vocalist with a tonal resemblance to Brandon Flowers, a bevy of instrumentalists that know their way around a melodic hook, and a mood that hovers just above “serious music.” (Radiohead this isn’t; neither is it Hot Chelle Rae, however.) The highlight is “Hands Together,” a tune that mixes vibraphone, distorted bass, squalling guitar and a frantic vocal performance for a gripping tune. Other tunes draw off the power of group vocals (“Pound for Pound”) or sparse arrangements (“Hey Forever”), while maintaining a mix between serious aspirations, pop melodies and danceable moments (you know, for the kids at the live shows!).
Some will be put off by the vocals (shades of Alec Ounsworth from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah creep in), while others will not like the fact that this sits between easily categorizable idioms: there’s not really a summer jam here, but this isn’t moody thinkpiece music. It will be interesting to see if The The The Thunder continue to explore this vein, or if they move in one direction for their follow-up release. They’ve got a good start going here, so I’m interested to see where they go.
Any band that makes me think of Guster is automatically on my good list, which makes the Atlanta folk/pop duo Rye the newest member of that club. David and Jonathan Fallis show off a smooth, upbeat, smile-inducing sound on the Near Me EP reminiscent of Easy Wonderful and Keep it Together. Opener “She Flies” kicks off the sound perfectly with a memorable guitar melody, tight vocal harmonies and an easy-going chemistry between the instruments. The thoughtful “You Matter” still retains great motion and melodies throughout, while “I Go Crazy” invokes an affectionate mood with folky harmonica and acoustic guitar. When they slow it down and go for the drama (“Midnight Conversations,” “Take Me Away”), the results are a little less satisfying, but it seems that with a bit more polish they could master that too. At the moment, however, Rye is at its best when the melodies are warm and the good vibes are flowing.
Gary B and the Notions‘ How Do We Explode is completely aptly named. The band that I praised for ’50s stylings on its last aptly titled release has largely dropped those for noisy, distorted late ’80s/ early ’90s guitar rock. This isn’t grunge, but it certainly comes from a similar spirit: these are pop songs played extremely loudly and with plenty of overdrive. From the Pavement-esque tones of “How to Eat a Brick Sandwich” to the dissonant crunch of “Too Busy for an Ambulance Ride” and “Street Drugs,” Gary B takes listeners through a rock’n'roll album. Those with a penchant for rock that features huge guitars, loud drums, dissonance and sung/hollered vocals will celebrate How Do We Explode. Also, I love the album art.
In my review of The Fierce and the Dead‘s last album, I desperately wanted the post-rock band to buckle down and make a statement. Their follow-up EP On VHS does that, pointing out a direction for the quartet. The four tracks here set out a gameplan of distorted bass, patterned guitar melodies/riffs, and aggression. This is best shown in “Hawaii,” which is not incorrectly described as thrashy in parts. There are melodies and tension in between the heavy sections, but the underlying feel is not one of tension/release; instead, the more apt metaphor is one of a boxer throwing a blitz of punches before retreating back to his stance to reload. It’s a punishing, powerful twenty minutes. If you’re into the heavy side of instrumental rock (Explosions in the Sky’s loudest, Sigur Ros’s loudest, Athletics, etc.), you’ll love On VHS. I’m interested to see where they take this approach in a full-length. Also, the album art creeps me out.
Patrick Watson‘s glorious chamber-pop tune “Into Giants” is impeccably orchestrated, inventively melodic, and intricately constructed. Watson’s tune evokes the complexities of Andrew Bird’s work, while his emotional falsetto cures the sterility that puts me off from much of Bird’s work. While “Into Giants” was an immediate lock in my mind, the rest of Adventures in Your Own Backyard took a while to grow on me. It’s still growing on me, but I’m not sure when it will come to a final resting place, so I just had to write the review.
The chiming “Blackwind,” comforting “Strange Crooked Road” and gentle “Words in the Fire” are all tunes that I had an “aha!” moment with; tunes like the sparse “Swimming Pools” and the woozy “Morning Sheets” still feel a little bit too much like Mark Richardson’s Faberge egg for me (beautiful, but without the ability to connect to me). Still, having a gorgeous album that’s a grower is absolutely no knock: it just means you’re going to have to spend some time with Watson to get the full effect of his album. If that sounds like your sort of invitation, there’s 48 minutes of music with your name written on it here. Also, I’m indifferent to the album art.
I’ve been following Elijah Wyman’s music since 2006, when Why We Never Go Swimming and Other Short Stories enlightened me to his slightly off-kilter acoustic folk. I’ve been a huge fan ever since, going so far as to dub him “one of my favorite acoustic songwriters ever.” For a blog that’s predominantly about folk, that’s about as high as praise gets.
So when Wyman unveiled the hip-hop/indie-pop project Tiny Mtns, I was pretty confused but willing to listen. The unusual tunes did not disappoint: Wyman’s songwriting, even when applied to a different genre, retained an unique spin. Instead of going full pop on it, Wyman played around with instrumentals, chorus-less tunes, arty meanderings, and electronic noodling. The under-used autoharp was a primary instrument in the tunes, after all. He planned to keep releasing tunes in a rotating mixtape, and I was prepared to keep checking on it.
Then I was notified that Tiny Mtns was dead, and that the songs had been parceled out between two bands: Wyman’s The Decent Lovers, and collaborator Jason Rozen’s Seer Group. Wyman still sings and performs on Seer Group songs and owns one of Rozen’s kidneys, so it’s safe to say this was merely a division of labor as opposed to a breakup. The Decent Lovers is a pop band, taking the more upbeat tunes from Tiny Mtns and fleshing them out; Seer Group is an arty electronic project. They share a couple songs: “Decent Lovers” is a murky electro jam on Seer Group’s Owlpine and a speedy acoustic-based pop song on Decent Lovers’ Quit Trying, while “Year of the Flame” has Wyman on all vocals for the DL version and a female vocalist for some vocals on the SG version. You’d be forgiven for getting a little confused.
While both albums are eccentric in their own ways, Seer Group’s Owlpine is the more difficult of the two to parse. The album is built on the back of keys and synths, but not the Killers’ buzzy synths or post-rock’s pad synths. These are gritty, yet fluctuating; lithe, but not saccharine. Opener “Cold Hands” is a meandering, slow-paced tune with laconic vocals and cascading instrumental lines from those synths. It creates a pensive, uneasy mood, as if one has stepped off a spaceship onto an unknown planet of immense beauty. There’s an undercurrent of danger and fear, but on the surface it’s beautiful.
That space situation is a solid metaphor for all of Owlpine. (The name of another of his tunes, “Murky Glow,” could also describe the album well.) “Year of the Flame” has a beautiful melody, but it uses a metaphorical (or maybe literal?) hurricane as its main lyrical device. The ominous, pulsing bass of “Wounded Animal” contrasts with the dreamy keys and vocals swirling above it. Even “Local Honey,” another Tiny Mtns holdover, is far more claustrophobic and paranoiac than I remember; the dreamy, coked-out weirdness seems to be moving in slow-motion. On the whole, Owlpine is an uncommon experience; I found myself returning to its distinct and carefully crafted mood.
The Decent Lovers’ Quit Trying was much easier for me to understand and enjoy, because most of it falls into one form of indie-pop or another. Whether the strummy “Barricade the Doors,” the dance-oriented “Beautiful Houses,” the fractured keys of “Brooklyn Rules Football” or somewhere in-between (“I Don’t Wanna Be a Decent Lover,” “I’m Happy All the Time (Sad Hawaii Version)”), Wyman is singing pop songs here. To rip a Death Cab title, you can play these songs with chords. It’s just that sometimes they would be really, really weird chords.
Since several of these songs came from the autoharp-heavy Tiny Mtns project, the instrument still plays a huge role here. That gives the songs a very unusual sound and feel, which is to their advantage. “Bold as Lions” could have been a straight-forward pop-rock song, but it’s a chiming wonder instead. “Small Towns” is profoundly beachy, with ukulele-esque sound and strum augmented by a bell kit and chill group vocals. “Barricade the Doors” takes that similar strum but turns it pastoral, invoking folksters like Fleet Foxes.
Wyman’s vocals are on full display in these tunes, which is great for a EW fan like myself. I’m partial to the strummier tunes, but I’m not so biased as to note that the still-highly-electronic “Year of the Flame” (which is credited to The Decent Lovers + Seer Group) is downright powerful in his hands. It’s a fun, unusual album that rewards multiple listens. I can’t chart it on a normal ebb and flow of a pop album’s ordering, and I like that. Fans of atypical pop music should definitely apply within.
Because Seer Group’s Rozen is super-thoughtful, he’s given IC two unreleased tracks to share with you all. Their titles speak for themselves. Enjoy!