Back when I was a humongous pop-punk fan just getting into acoustic music, I never thought I’d be able to distinguish between alt-country and folk. At some point before I heard Don DiLego‘s music, I figured that distinction out–even if it’s still difficult for me to fully explain. It’s more than the occasional pedal steel and full-band instrumentation that sets DiLego’s music in this category or that; he approaches the whole Western & Atlantic EP with a mature, well-developed gravitas in the melodies and lyrics. “Chicago” is a song about love with a minimum of sap, while “Television Sun” is about “what’s worth fighting for.” “Lonely Couples” is a stark tune that reminds me of Chris Mills’ work, while closer “Carry On” is a powerful tune that impressively never goes for the big hook and remains dignified in its quiet existence.
These tunes are incredibly strong, especially when considering the impromptu sessions that predicated them (you can read the story here). This one unfolds more of its beauty with each subsequent listen. If you’re down for thoughtful lyrics and disarmingly poignant melodies that resist emotive pandering, then Western & Atlantic needs to be in your corner.
The Damn Choir‘s You’re My Secret Called Fire features almost everything I want from an indie-folk band: distinctive yet melodic vocals, full arrangements, confident songwriting, spot-on performances and powerful control of mood. The band strips its sound clear of Mumford and Sons’ grandiose veneer, the cinematic production values of Grizzly Bear, and slow’n’sad tendencies that many songwriters put forth to produce a raw, vital sound. It’s a beautiful, poignant, passionate album–musically. However, as you might expect from a band that doesn’t think twice about putting the word “Damn” in its name, the lyrics are incredibly raw. They’re not vulgar or profane, but “I wish I was Noah, I would watch the world drown” and “I watch the pain in your eyes before you finally drown” (from “Noah”) are representative samples. Let’s just say religion and ex-girlfriends are not high on the list of The Damn Choir’s favorite things. If you can get past that, there’s gold in these hills. (I’d go for “Grace” and “Ghost.”) If those sentiments rub you the wrong way, go for one of the other two albums in this post.
Heyward Howkins’ The Hale and the Hearty is something altogether different from the two albums above. Although it could be filed in a loose interpretation of “indie-folk,” Howkins’ songwriting vision is far outside the traditional folk style (i.e the You Can Play These Songs With Chords school, as the not-folkies in Death Cab for Cutie noted). Howkins’ complex, intricate songwriting is full of twists and turns. There are more sudden stops and starts here than in a math-rock album. The melodies are less structured and singalong, more stream-of-consciousness and meandering. This creates an album that is an experience not easily translated into mixtape fodder. Not that “Waist High and Dry” doesn’t have beautiful moments that could definitely fit between Fleet Foxes and Josh Ritter; it just also has unusual rhythms and arrangements that would make it a weird fit at the same time. The song is 2:55 long.
Again, Howkins’ album is just as beautiful as the other two on this post: it simply gets there in a vastly different way. If you’re into music that makes you think more than it makes you sing, this one’s for you. You’ll still hum the tunes; but they’ll be hums punctuated by unexpected drum riffs (“The Raucous Calls of Morning”), unusual horns (“Cocaine Bill”) and tempo changes (everywhere) that keep your brain on point. Great, great stuff.
Ben Fisher‘s Roanoke EP comes on the heels of his 2011 debut album Heavy Boots and Underwoods. The latter showed flashes of brilliance and foreshadowed a bright future for folk-singer Fisher; Roanoke is where he starts to build on that foundation. Since The Tallest Man on Earth’s nasally voice is a high price of entry, opener “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” becomes instantly likable by aping Kristian Matsson’s carefree strum and pairing it with Fisher’s low voice. “Dublin Blues Pt. 2” puts some forlorn but interesting lyrics into a country mold, with good results. But it’s “Hibernation” that sticks with me, as the gently fingerpicked tune sounds like a calmed-down Tallest Man in both the vocals and the guitar. The melodic flourishes that fill it out give a sense of Josh Ritter-esque gravitas, while not feeling too much like a Ritter tune. The title track is a high-desert tune with pedal steel, shakers and a wide-open feel; “To Conclude…” is a quiet strummer, but the vocals push a little hard against the gentle track.
That push and pull between gentle and intense is where Fisher lives on this EP (his bio says that he “tends to bellow”), but he doesn’t turn gentle songs into roars (like Damien Rice) or speed them way up (The Tallest Man on Earth). Instead, he fills his gentle performances with a confident energy. It’s a tough thing to explain, but that’s why it’s great: it sets Fisher apart. I’m looking forward to more tunes from Fisher, as Roanoke is a satisfying chapter in Fisher’s songwriting that points towards more good in the future.
White Blush‘s bedroom electronica is of the claustrophobic, moody and sparse type. I’m not too familiar with the genre, but I checked it out due to the Portishead connections I heard in the sound. Carol Rhyu’s music is much more mellow and free-flowing than Portishead’s lock-step trip-hop, but both share the ability to traverse in dark sounds without sounding particularly evil or sad. They just like hanging out in the nighttime, it seems. “Without You” builds from some fragmented melodic elements into a swirling, pensive tune. “808 Myst” is an eerie sort of chiptune piece that traffics in the same moody vein as “Without You,” while “Wait” is a stark tune that strips her sound down to vocals, a casio and soft rhythmic thumps. It’s oddly intriguing, just as the other two tunes. White Blush has delivered three beautiful tunes here; fans of ambient or other quiet electro would really enjoy this.
Ty Maxon‘s music is beautiful. It was gorgeous in 2009’s Furthest From the Tree, and it’s still so in this year’s Calling of the Crows. Maxon plays intricate acoustic tunes that can be categorized as folk, but their appeal transcends those looking for rustic purity of sound. Furthest had a knowing, distanced, Nick Drake-esque whimsy to it; Calling has a much more intimate, Damien Jurado-esque vibe. The wink is gone, replaced with a wry smile.
This lends the album a mellow, gentle feel. No track here is particularly fast, nor is any one track given inordinate attention. These tracks are all on equal footing, each taking their place in the album and contributing. Some may say that the cascading notes and easy-going tempos don’t change enough from tune to tune, but I like the consistency here. The album comes together to be a unified musical statement, and that’s rare in this day and age. Harmonica, drums and more make occasional appearances, but generally this is the province of Maxon’s voice and guitar. Both don’t get too loud or intense, and instead unveil depth and beauty.
If you’re into stately, gently emotive folk, you’ll be all over this. A perfect lazy porch, gentle rain, hammocking Sunday in the fall would definitely include Calling of the Crows.
My love affair with enthusiastic, optimistic, instrumental punk/prog/post-rock (which I’ve been calling o-prog) began when I heard The Programme in 2005. The band’s lone album is still one of my favorites. So when Fang Island came along and blew the cover off the genre in the public’s eye, I was ecstatic. A wave of bands came to light who were (and had been) doing similar things under the cover of no one caring. And So I Watch You From Afar, All Tiny Creatures, Adebisi Shank and more have all come up on my radar since FI blew up. And now, Mental Architects is in that space as well.
Mental Architects‘ appropriately titled album Celebrations skews more toward the guitar acrobatics of Adebisi Shank than the punked-out work of ASIWYFA and Fang Island. But the band also puts more oomph behind the sound in terms of volume and distortion than All Tiny Creatures’ minimalist, sparkling constructions. “Launch the Avalanche” has a straightforward rock base before they add a layer of mysterious guitar; “Here is Where, Where Better” pairs a herky-jerky post-punk riff with the unusual rhythms and time signatures of post-rock. They can throw down when they want to, and no one would complain that it’s not rock. But they also love polyrhythms (“When Sound Turns Into a Person He Becomes One of Us,” oh wow) and tension-building (“Caves of Keys”). There’s a lot going on in this release. Side note: the humorously titled “Meth-rock” seriously sounds like the frantic sort of music I’d expect to hear in a Megaman video game.
As I was listening to these incredible tunes, the idea of the cover song came up in my mind. In pop music, it’s relatively simple to play someone else’s song: you learn the chords, put a spin on it of your own, and off you go. But with Celebrations, covering would be more along the lines of classical music: you’d have to really try to play this. And that’s a great thing. I love to hear a band making technical, interesting, challenging work for themselves that ends up being a ton of fun for listeners. It makes Celebrations a great listen, because even though I couldn’t often tell what was going to come next, I knew it was going to be delightful. And that’s the best type of release.
It’s important to remember that indie-rockers in the ’80s never called themselves indie-rock; the vast majority assumed themselves as part of the punk tradition. We’ve backfilled the term indie-rock on those bands that were playing their music independently. (I am as guilty of this as anyone.) But it’s no surprise that ’80s rock from the independent scene has a vastly different vibe than indie-rock as we know it now: they saw themselves in a line of rejects with no expectations placed upon them, while much post-Pavement indie-rock self-consciously views itself as part of the pop tradition. That latter trait isn’t always a bad thing, but it does curtail a certain amount of experimentation and idiosyncrasy.
Glimmermen claim to be playing Urban Post-Rock Blues (?), but I think what they’re trying to say is “we do what we want.” And with the removal of the restrictor plates, the Dublin trio is able to open the throttle wide for their four-song Satellite People EP. Their sound is tough to pin down in words, so I can’t blame them for picking an esoteric set of them to try some self explanation: the title track combines a rigid rhythm with a laissez-faire guitar tone and rambling spoken word vocals, while “I’ll Be” brings an ominous edge to the sound with some angular (but not harsh) guitar. Sounds normal until the big reveal: both of these songs have a shaker as the distinctive rhythmic element. “I’ll Be” has a harmonica. “Satellite People” sounds like bizarro Red Hot Chili Peppers or something, what with the “monkeys on the moon” reference. This is abnormal music.
Abnormal, but in the best way. The tunes have a rare pull that comes from not being able to easily classify their work. With few easy mentions other than, “that good old indie ethos, back when it was the punk rock ethos but not really anymore,” Glimmermen command attention. They reward the attention, too; this is genuinely fun stuff to listen to, partially because of its challenge and partially because they’re not afraid to yell “yeehaw!” in the middle of a song because they feel like it. Rock on, Glimmermen.
Restorations‘ self-titled album was one of my favorites of the year in 2011, and their A/B 7″ is impressive enough to be in the conversation for 2012, even though it’s a scant two songs. The tunes, appropriately named “A” and “B,” have all of the passion and power of their self-titled release while adding more creative songwriting tricks. This rock band doesn’t v/c/v; they swoop in and out with guitars, throw down raging sections of gruff sing-a-long, knock it down to build it back up, and more in the 10:17 that Restorations throws at you.
And it is hurled across the table at you; there’s a headlong fervor in these songs that comes from the fact that they’re really good at writing songs and playing their instruments. It sounds like they’ve not only done their homework, but they’ve been the homework. You can almost hear them building off old songs from their old bands, taking sudden corners that they wouldn’t have taken before, going over there when the established move is staying over here in this area. This is music that doesn’t feel like packaged, self-aware pop songs. These songs feel like an unstoppable overflow. A/B doesn’t seem calculated, it seems inevitable. How could you not want in on something that gripping?
I first heard the music of Czech brother-sister duo Dva at SXSW earlier this year. Their unassuming inter-song presence hid a jaw-dropping maelstrom of looped acoustic guitar, vocals and percussion, presented with a powerful confidence that bordered on ferocity. Their album Hu doesn’t quite capture the breathtaking intensity of their live performance nor the intricate care that goes into creating these tunes, but it does show the finished product pretty well.
When playing live, the duo makes the most of what they’ve got: between the two of them there are sung vocals, vocal percussion, astonishingly accurate impressions of animal sounds, a saxophone, acoustic guitar, and improvised percussion. And although it doesn’t sound like it, those pieces (and copious amounts of found sound) compose most of the music in the album. They weave all of this into unique tunes that bend the boundaries of genre. The highlight track is “Hap Hej” (they sing in their native Czech), where a cascading acoustic guitar line is matched by a darting vocal line, animal sounds, an unusual flute, the sax, and looped clicks and clanks for percussion. You’ll have to make up your own words, but you’ll want to. It’s the sort of bubbling, uniquely optimistic track that Jonsi made a name for himself purveying.
“Hap Hej” is the most upbeat of the tunes (save the goofy fun of live knock-out “Tropikal Animal”), but there are gems within the more pensive tunes. “Numie” follows “Hap Hej” and builds a murky mood out of a slow-moving sax line, more percussion clicks and numerous ethereal background vocal lines. Intro “Animak” sets the tone for the album well, layering thoughtful vocals and guitars over a quirky keyboard line. The band plays with the boundaries between sunny and cloudy throughout (“Tatanc,” “Huhu”), creating an interesting listening experience that rewards multiple listens. It’s not the type you get on one listen, which should tell some people everything they need to know.
Dva fancy Hu to be “pop of non-existent radios,” and they’re right in some regards. “Hap Hej” won’t be on many radio stations anytime soon (except for hip college radio stations, perhaps!), no matter how great it is. And it certainly doesn’t sound like Katy Perry. But for adventurous listeners, there’s a lot of interesting and rewarding composition going on in Hu. And if you have a chance to see them live, by all means do it. It will knock your socks off.
Wooden Wing‘s Love or Something Similar owes an equal debt to fingerpicked pop-folk and Paul Simon: it’s hard to imagine that this EP exists without the influence of either. The tight, bright tunes have such an easygoing, open feel that I was surprised to find it the work of a quintet. I would not have been surprised to hear it was a guy/girl duo, as two vocalists trade off. Both Ted Gerstle and Mel Senftle have earnest, guileless voices that give a boost of goodwill to folky tunes that could otherwise have been moody.
Wooden Wing is fond of employing pad synths sweeps to bridge the gap between optimistic and despondent (“Bubblegum, “Finish First”), which is a space where Paul Simon spent a large part of his career. So it’s unsurprising that the title track sounds like a long-lost Rhymin’ Simon track, with perky rhythms, polyphonic acoustic guitar lines, and a lot of syllables offhandedly cast into unexpected spaces. It works beautifully, pointing the way toward a bright future for Wooden Wing if they keep writing and growing. Chicagoans, take note: they’re in your neck of the woods.
The heat bubble that engulfed most of the United States for a couple weeks has broken, so it’s been raining almost daily here in Austin. That’s perfect weather to listen to The Brokenmusicbox‘s A Life Less Underground, a heaping helping of wistful, lush, Pacific Northwest indie-folk. The album isn’t strum-heavy; the band depends strongly on vocals and piano to create the mood (although drums and guitar are definitely a part of the sound). With the main push focused on sonorous vocal melodies, the rest of the instruments are turned down in importance; this results in a very consistent release.
There aren’t many instrumental performances to point out in A Life Less Underground that stick out (although the instrumentalists are all talented), because the overall feel of the album is more important. It’s a rousing success on that front: you may not remember the names of any particular tune (except the sparse closer “California Year”), but you’ll know the album was beautiful. Still, opener “We Will,” “My Heart” and “Never” all have charms that set them apart as highlights. Fans of Fleet Foxes and Grizzly Bear will find much to love here.
If you’ve got 90 minutes, love new music and have a thing for music videos, Serious Feather’s “Manchester: Beyond Oasis” is calling you. The documentary covers a wide swath of Manchester’s thriving music scene (rap, electronic, rock, pop, folk, blues, reggae, unclassifiable stuff) in 40ish clips of music videos and interviews put together into a statement about the city. It’s fun, and I have almost a dozen new bands I want to check out. It’s the second of a series, and the first full-length one; I hope the company can make some cash and keep putting these out. Awesome job.
Roadkill Ghost Choir takes their banjo-powered, mournful Southern rock into a swamp and proceeds to play the heck out of “Beggars Guild.” This one blew me away.
Isaac Indiana, the British indie-pop/indie-rock band I covered recently, can go acoustic as well. Check this very pretty rendition of highlight track “You and I.” (There’s another acoustic tune and two music videos on their YouTube channel as well.)
Bill Fay’s “Be at Peace With Yourself” comes close to matching the title with its calming, lush visuals. The delicate, Lennon-esque tune matches the title as well.
UK DJ Ex-Friendly is releasing The Friendly EP later this year. Instead of coming up with art for it himself, he’s throwing it out to the world at large: until July 27, you can submit a potential album cover as part of a contest. The full details include dimensions, a picture for inspiration, and where to send your finished piece. Here’s the rhythm-heavy single:
Come On Pilgrim! has announced that its album release show has moved from August 11 to August 25. All the other details are the same: 9 p.m. @ The Rhumb Line (Upstairs), Gloucester, MA. Here’s the Facebook event! I hope this is the final news on the show, because if I have to post one more time about this show I think my heart will break.
And because the month turned over recently, it’s time for another installation of the Run Hundred list. -Stephen Carradini
This month’s top 10 songs is packed to the brim with surprises. With the exception of Rihanna, none of the usual suspects (GaGa, Pitbull, Katy Perry, etc.) make appearances. In their places, you’ll find an aggressive synth track by Nero, a comeback single from Matchbox Twenty, a crossover hit from Juan Magan, the sophomore effort from One Direction, a mash-up from the Rock of Ages soundtrack, and more.
Here’s the full list, according to votes placed at Run Hundred.
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