Wherein I Remember That I Mostly Listen to Music With Acoustic Guitars In It
1. “So, what exactly does it say?” – The Weather Machine. I loved Joe Pug’s first record lyrically, and I love Passenger’s vocal stylings now. Mash them together, and my heart melts. Add in steel drums, and you end up as the lead track on an MP3 mix. Super excited to hear more of this album.
2. “Passing Ships” – The Travelling Band. If you wish the Decemberists would go back to being flamboyant and triumphant musically, The Travelling Band might be your solution. Cello, piano, speedy drums and group vocals swirl around in a wonderfully theatrical way.
3. “Walk Away” – The Bone Chimes. There’s a lot of musical theater going on in this interesting indie-pop track, from the vocal stylings to high-drama arrangements to even a carnival music section.
4. “Sour” – Tim Fitz. There’s downers psych, uppers psych, and giddy psych. This shimmery track fits that latter category. Its favorite color is probably neon green and neon pink, because it can’t pick just one.
5. “Doin’ It to You” – Luke Sweeney. Everybody needs a slice of happy-go-lucky, charming, perky SanFran indie-pop every now and then.
6. “Way Out Weather” – Steve Gunn. Gunn opens up a classic space with this rolling arrangement, as if Joe Walsh got a little folkier.
7. “Roll the Dice” – Charles Mansfield. If The Mountain Goats had a bit more ’50s-pop nostalgia, they might turn out charming, perky, intelligent songs like this one.
8. “Noma” – Dear Blanca. With outrage in the left hand, depression in the right, and a singing saw in the third hand, “Noma” manages to be brash and raucous without being fast or particularly noisy. Impressive tune!
9. “Get Your Fill of Feelin’ Hungry” – Jay Brown. James Taylor is underappreciated in indie circles for his pristine melodies, tight guitarwork, and general great songsmithing. Jay Brown appreciates those qualities; “Get Your Fill” is smooth, tight, and melodically memorable. Whatever you call it (pop, folk, singer/songwriter, etc.), this is great songwriting.
10. “Under the Weather” – The Good Graces. Alt-country and indie-pop haven’t had enough crossover, I think. The Good Graces are making that happen, with the swaying arrangements of the former and the quirky vocal melodies of the latter in this fun tune. Also, horns!!
11. “Seasons” – Palm Ghosts. Folk loves its sadness, but this beautiful song is warm nostalgia in song form.
12. “Childhood Home” – The Healing. This pensive alt-country tune has that rare, magical male/female duet connection. The chorus is haunting and yet comforting; it’s a powerful tune.
13. “Lion’s Lair” – Red Sammy. “I like Megadeth / I don’t like Slayer,” relates the narrator in this quiet, lovely, lonely alt-country track reminiscent of Mojave 3. Caught my attention for sure.
I’m always honored when I get asked to premiere tracks, but I don’t often do it–I want to be fully behind a band before I put my seal of approval on it. But there’s a premiere today, because I am 100% behind Charlotte, North Carolina’s Ancient Cities.
Ancient Cities’ “Werewolf” is a complex tune that deceives you into thinking it’s not as difficult as it is. Songwriter Stephen Warwick deftly balances gentle acoustic guitar, walloping drums, lazy horns, reverb-washed tenor vocals, and warbly synth in a way that makes each of those disparate parts feel like a natural part of the arrangement. In lesser hands, it could be a mishmash, but Warwick’s arrangement gives each instrument space to be itself. The song comes together, and it seems obvious. Of course it’s supposed to sound like that. (But it didn’t have to–that’s the magic.)
This excellent songwriting is capped by a deft production job that keeps the “laid-back cool” vibe going throughout the entire song. Beck would be proud. “Werewolf” draws from folk, trip-hop, the Gorillaz, and heavily-arranged singer/songwriter fare to create something beyond all of that. “Werewolf” is a fascinating, memorable track that I bet you’ll want to push repeat on.
The line between indie-rock and Imagine Dragons-style pop-rock is not so far, sometimes–and if you’re a band that has previously flown their “U2 FAN” flag, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to be compared to pop hitmakers. Afterlife Parade is a indie-rock/pop-rock band that writes emotionally-charged anthems with huge choruses, whoa-oh sections, and verses that just sound like they belong there. AP’s sound is tight, polished, and fun on the three-song Afterlife Parade EP–what more could you want?
Opener “Break Away” does everything right to be a big hit: there’s a perky, bubbly opening riff, a yearning vocal line in the verse (a la Coldplay), a soaring vocal chorus hook, really strong crescendo layering throughout the song, and a culminating whoa-oh section. It’s pretty close to a perfect pop song, which is not a term I dole out liberally. “Break Away” should be in your life.
The other two tracks are similarly moving pop tunes. “Conquer It All” has a bit more of a confrontational vibe reminiscent of Needtobreathe and vocal melodies again reminiscent of Coldplay. The slow build of “A Million Miles Away” brings a more pensive, quiet side of the band to the forefront. They’re both really engaging tunes, but it’s hard to top the A+ that is “Break Away.”
Are you an unabashed fan of pop music? By all means, run/don’t walk to Afterlife Parade. If you’re a more undercover fan of the brasher charms, sidle your way on over. Just get there, because this is how it’s done, folks.
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.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.