I just finished reading The Night Circus, which is a tale of magic and circus set in Victorian England. The best part of the novel is the perfect mood it captures, with curiosity being the only guide in a world that fluctuates between joy, terror, and confusion. Curtis Eller’s American Circus‘s How to Make It In Hollywood draws off that same time period for musical, lyrical and visual inspiration, resulting in an album that is as mysterious, dirty, magical, scruffy, distinctive, oft foreboding, and occasionally whimsical as the circus itself.
Eller plays the banjo, and so the songs all have a plucky, jaunty feel that only a banjo can give. On top of that base, there’s everything from mournful ballads to proto-rock’n’roll jaunts to old-timey folk tunes to things that sound like they fell right off the back of a circus. The sense of theatricality that is so prevalent in the circus holds together songs as disparate as the New Orleans-esque “Butcherman” and the forlorn “Three More Minutes with Elvis”; the impressive arrangements make both of those tunes sound excellent. The ominous backwater stomp of “The Heart That Forgave Richard Nixon” is wholly different again; it’s just as impressive musically.
Eller isn’t a chameleon so much as he is an expert storyteller, matching moods and lyrics impeccably. If “Busby Berkeley Funeral” needs to sound like a jubilation after a slight into pondering death, the music can fit that. Eller’s strong voice is the guide through this wildly diverse album, the ringmaster in a circus of sounds that are here one minute and gone the next. Whether it’s 1950s pop or 1850s folk lament, Eller knows how to fit it into the amalgam. If you’re interested in upbeat folk like Jonas Friddle’s, or theatrical work like The Decemberists (but way more fun than they ever were), you’ll be thrilled to hear Curtis Eller’s How to Make It In Hollywood.
I’m familiar with Paul J. Phillips‘ folky persona, so the assured rock vibe that bursts out of the five-song release Magic surprised me. From the get-go on “Time, Time,” he hits the listener with fuzzy guitar, thick bass, Motown horns, and tons of strut and swagger. His voice is right at home in the mix, swooning and swaying with the right mix of raucous energy and smoothness. I haven’t seen Get On Up yet, but…
The title track and “Da Blues” are a little more country-fied, calling to mind CCR and what might forever be known as That Song From the Guardians of the Galaxy Trailer (“Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum). Jaunty piano, perky shakers, and well-placed strings give the former a classic, upbeat vibe that makes it a standout. “Fly Boy” moves more toward the Motown vibe, almost getting into soul territory. Phillips wraps things up with the appropriately titled “Till It’s Gone,” which pours the soul vocals into a wurly-heavy pop framework. Magic is a strong five-song outing that shows a fresh side of Phillips. The songs here are fun, but they’re also really tightly constructed. Phillips’ songwriting here is solid, and the vibes are good; I look forward to seeing what comes of this release.
I love punk, artsy electronica, even some post-hardcore now and then. But I’m always going to come back to the pristine simplicity of a solo voice over fingerpicked acoustic guitar. Cancellieri, hot on the heels of his excellent LP Welcome to Mount Pleasant, has given the world a whole album’s worth of gorgeous voice-and-guitar tracks. Winning my heart even more, eight of these fourteen tracks are covers. Closet Songs is wholly wonderful.
Ryan Cancellieri has a lot of things going for him on Closet Songs: he chooses covers excellently, he performs covers memorably, and writes songs of his own that stand up to the company of their peers. Let’s take these things in turn.
Closet Songs is put together like a good mixtape: some songs you absolutely don’t know, some you might know, a few you definitely know, at least one curveball to keep ’em guessing. I hadn’t heard “I Love You But Goodbye” by Langhorne Slim or “Mama’s Eyes” by Justin Townes Earle, although I respect both of those guys as songwriters. The songs are great, and I thank Cancellieri for letting me know about them. You may have heard “Bella Donna” or “Famous Flower of Manhattan” if you’re more of a Avett Brothers fan than me. You’ve most likely heard “Green Eyes” by Coldplay and “Murder in the City” by the Avetts. Curveball? “Dreams Be Dreams” by Jack Johnson. (Whoa bro.) The best part about all of these is that they’re not just great songs, they’re great songs for Cancellieri.
One of the problems that people who choose covers run into is that they like songs that they can’t possibly perform, vocally or musically. That is not the case here, as Cancellieri adapts the songs to fit his range comfortably. These all sound very easy and fun for him; they’re pleasing to the ear and soul for that element. (Nothing worse to me than someone who sounds like they’re having no fun trying to cover something.) His version of “Mama’s Eyes” definitely retains elements of Earle’s delivery, but it feels real and true in Cancellieri’s voice. That’s the mark of a strong cover. He doesn’t try to copy the original; he tries to be faithful to it while making it his own. It’s a rare skill, and Cancellieri shows he has it.
Another problem of covers is that sometimes a cover is the best thing in a set. (Uh-oh.) This happens because, well, you’re covering an elite talent, and sometimes you aren’t that. However, Cancellieri is an elite talent, and his songs stack well against his covers. “Fortunate Peace” and “Zalo” had me checking to see who wrote them, because they’re just brilliant songs. Cancellieri carries his songwriting voice with the gravitas of someone who knows what they’re doing. This doesn’t mean that he’s brash and bold; these songs are humble, even sad in spots. But Cancellieri sounds fully in control of the guitar, his vocal range, and lyrics on these tunes, which is not something that can be said of many singer/songwriters. You want to test it? You can press play on the first track of the soundcloud and then go to a different tab. Try to guess which are his and which aren’t. You’ll be impressed.
Cancellieri’s Closet Songs is a beautiful, poised, mature offering. It plays like a good mixtape, and it sounds like a great album. This is one of my favorite singer/songwriter releases of the year so far. (With apologies to his own previous full-length!) You very much need to check out Closet Songs if you’re a fan of fingerpicking-heavy singer/songwriters like Justin Townes Earle and The Tallest Man on Earth. (Also Joe Pug, but not because of the fingerpicking.)
I just spent the better part of two weeks going through a house move and a computer crash. (Why do these things so often tag team?) As a result, I’ve got a very eclectic mix of tracks that I’m into right now. Usually I try to put some sort of theme together, but this one has it all. Good luck!
The New House Highs and Lows
1. “Icarus” – Silver Firs. If Grizzly Bear and Givers joined forces, I still don’t know if they could pull off this track. It’s like a more woodsy version of Architecture in Helsinki, which is my way of saying, “A+ LISTEN IMMEDIATELY.”
2. “Dean & Me” – jj. If you want to know what the world has come up with in 70 years of pop music, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better example track than this one that incorporates vintage songwriting skills (even with a throwback reference!), traditional lyrics (with some existential twists) and sounds that are completely now. Just brilliant stuff.
3. “Blue Eyes” – The Rosebuds. You probably need some giddy, jangly, ooo-filled guitar pop in your life. The Rosebuds provide.
4. “You’ve Already Won” – Slow Buildings. Classic garage rock bass line, tambourine, and half-speed/mopey chorus make for a way fun tune.
5. “Scott Get the Van, I’m Moving” – Cayetana. If you’re not on the Cayetana train, that’s because it’s quickly becoming a bullet train and it’s hard to jump on those. But seriously. Cayetana’s female-fronted punk is blowing up just about as fast as they can get their sound into ears, so you should be on that.
6. “Hold Me Like the Water” – The Radio Reds. You want some churning, claustrophobic punk rock? You got it, chief. The Radio Reds’ latest track makes me feel like I’m in a cramped basement getting my younger self’s demons out through moshing and yelling all the words that the Radio Reds actually are singing. You know what I’m saying.
7. “Valkyrie” – CURXES. If the brittle tones of Sleigh Bells got somehow danceable, CURXES would show up at that party fashionably late and with a slightly higher-end alcohol than was expected of the soiree.
8. “All I Want” – SW/MM/NG. Remember in the ’90s, when one version of indie-rock was rock’n’roll music made with no pretenses of being radio-friendly or traditionally poppy? SW/MM/NG’s earnest, endearing, yelpy slacker psych is a band that escaped the Pavement vortex and made it forward in time 20 years.
9. “Another” – Greylag. Led Zeppelin had that way of sounding wild and adventurous in their acoustic tracks, and Greylag has that same feel. This exciting acoustic-fronted tune has that rolling, ongoing feel of travel.
10. “Rise Up For Love” – Sister Speak. I love dance-pop and EDM in moderation. I would love to see more classic pop songcraft on the radio, starting with Sister Speak’s beautiful, mature, classy, catchy tune right here. It just feels right in my ears, and it would sound so right on my radio.
11. “Pop Ur Heart Out” – Salme Dahlstrom. Have you ever wanted a female Fatboy Slim? Doesn’t matter, Dahlstrom fills the role with aplomb. Seriously, try to not think about “Praise You” during this tune. It’s impossible. I love it.
12. “Everlasting Arms” – Luke Winslow-King. Southern gospel is kind of like Western swing: distinct sound, not that many adherents. Luke Winslow-King is makin’ that traditional sound cool again, and I’m fully on board with this.
13. “Together Alone” – Hollie April. You ever have that moment where you hear a voice for the first time, and it knocks you back a little bit? Hollie April has one of those amazing voices that make me sit up and take notice. Keep watch.
Airy, bright, anthemic indie-rock is having a heyday right now: with folk-inspired musicians leaning ever more on the “inspired” and less on the “folk,” tons of bands are embracing big, bright, organic-feeling indie-rock.
Leanids is one of them. The Swedish outfit’s debut album A Wildly mines complex fingerpicking folk territory that fellow countryman The Tallest Man on Earth has done some work in (“Candid & Frank,” “All I Wanted,” the title track), while also nodding toward more power-pop inclinations (“And Then”).
But it’s on tunes like “Trust” that Leanids shine best, mixing complex rhythms, varying tempos, pop melodies, and art-school sentiments into warm, shifting, bursting tracks. The vocalist’s high, occasionally nasal voice is a perfect foil for the sound, as it has a jubilant, celebratory aspect about it. It’s easy to imagine this band as a less-mopey version of Copeland, or a alternate future in which Bright Eyes had turned the treble way up on his guitar. But in this reality, this talented folk-inspired indie-rock act is writing beautiful and interesting tunes. Highly recommended.
I think that Dawes has some pretty outstanding songwriting, even though most of their songs are way depressing. Their country-rock sound is fresh-faced and tight, making it the perfect sort of alt-country to put forward into the indie-rock world. Robert Francis and the Night Tide‘s Heaven has a similar vibe, combining the tightly compacted sound of power-pop, the rhythms of alt-country, and vocal melodies of modern indie rock. Standout “Baby Was the Devil” also includes a passing resemblance to the synth-powered jams of M83, and that’s no coincidence either. Francis is making the most of the sounds he’s hearing and crafting them into his own tunes.
He’s a bit of a chameleon; lead single “Love is a Chemical” is a straightforward country-rocker, while the title track is a soul-inspired crooner. “Pain” is reminiscent of full-band folk like Fleet Foxes, while “Wasted on You” is an acoustic-and-voice track that is a solid-gold lonely troubadour tune reminiscent of I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning-era Bright Eyes. (Standout “I’ve Been Meaning to Call” is also voice-and-guitar; he’s damn good at that, and he should do more of it.) The Josh Ritter-esque rhythms of “Take You to the Water” explode into a synth-pop song (!). But if he circles alt-country, he always comes back to it–nothing ever sounds completely out of that sphere. In the same way that it’s hard to describe Dawes without saying, “It just sounds really good,” it’s hard to describe Francis without it. Heaven is a strong collection of alt-country/folk tunes that never repeat themselves. Sounds pretty great to me.
Bear in Heaven’s cinematographer filmed for a month at night in New York City to capture the many feels of what goes on in the city at night. It’s a mesmerizing, incredible short film that works perfectly with the music.
IC faves Challenger return with a video about a girl, an abandoned asylum, a ghost, and trespassing; now with 100% more ending you didn’t expect.
Sharon Van Etten’s video for “Our Love” is almost uncomfortably personal; a black and white shot of her bedroom and her lover (without showing any nudity whatsoever), it depicts the tensions inherent in the tune perfectly. It’s beautiful, just like the tune.
Did you like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World? If so, you will love the clip for The Yuseddit Brothers’ “Metronome.” The song seems to have approximately 0% connection to the video, but that’s totally okay because the video is awesome.
The Music Collaborative is an extended group of friends centered around one woman (who also runs Sushi and Queso Designs). The idea is simple: e-mail all her friends and family each week for what they are listening to, then make a playlist out of it and put it on Spotify. You can access the playlists from Facebook or Spotify itself. The list is extremely diverse, with showtunes, rap, indie-rock, top 40, and classic rock all getting rep. Fun times! If you want to contribute to the mix, you can post on the Facebook wall. If you want to know what I’m listening to each week outside of stuff I cover, here’s a good way to find out. (Not a big secret, though: It’s mostly Mountain Goats songs.)
The Lightning Magazine proposes to be a quarterly counterculture magazine (printed on real paper, because who does that anymore?) that has a 20-album series associated with it. That’s a ton of music. Most notably for IC readers, old-school IC faves Pontiak are in on the thing. Here are some other people involved, listed as they styled the names:
SHINJI MASUKO (DMBQ/BOREDOMS) / CY DUNE / WOODEN WAND / PEOPLE OF THE NORTH / SAM AMIDON / CHRIS FORSYTH / WILLIAM TYLER / GREG SAUNIER (DEERHOOF) / AMERICAN CULTURE (and a bunch more). Finally, here’s a short video and description of it in their own words.
IC faves Soundsupply have teamed up with IC faves Deep Elm (as well as The Militia Group) to put out a drop that includes unsung emo heroes Brandtson’s full discography. Seriously, Brandtson and The Appleseed Cast pretty much were Deep Elm to me for a long time. You owe it to your emo-revival-loving self to check out Brandtson if you haven’t. 10 albums! 15 bucks! Totally!
Finally, I have been tapped to join the board of directors for North Carolina non-profit record label Croquet Records. This is really exciting to me, because who doesn’t want to be on a board of directors? Just kidding. I’m really pleased that I’ll be able to work with North Carolina-based singer/songwriters through this record label. (And I’ll make sure to publish any conflict of interest statements that are necessary.) The label will spring into action in 2015, so get ready for that.
Jacob Furr’s Trails and Traces is going to a heavy album, as he wrote it after losing his young wife to cancer. The mournful folk opening of “Falling Stars” turns into a raging alt-country stomper by the end of the track. To cap it off, the wide-open, Western videography is gorgeous.
I can’t get The Collection off my mind, and this exuberant video for “The Gown of Green” is one of the reasons why. I’m particularly a fan of the bassist in this clip, who is going hard in the paint 100%. The cellist, clarinetist, and trombonist all are stoked to be there, but for real. The bassist. He knows what is up.
Gosh, Brother O Brother make such desperate-sounding songs. From the raucous guitars to the thrashing drums to outraged vocal delivery, it sounds like “Without Love” is about to come crashing down on you at all times. In times like these, though, perhaps we need desperate outrage at the lack of love in the world.
In addition to being able to sing and shred wicked guitar riffs, Megafauna’s Dani Neff can dance. She puts all three of those skills on display for the “Haunted Factory” clip.
2. “Start Again” – Slow Readers Club. There’s a dark, slinky, sexy groove that falls between Interpol and Bloc Party going on in this hook-filled tune.
3. “Feels Like Work” – The Slang. Jimmy Eat World seems to have a monopoly on the introspective rock song that is both emotionally powerful and actually rocking, but The Slang are throwing their hat in the ring with this tune. I’m a fan of this towering rock tune.
4. “The Lord’s Favorite” – Iceage. These Danes make this tune sound like some sort of high-speed, drunken Johnny Cash outtake, from the musical style to the depictions of drinking and hard living. (That’s high praise, in case you were wondering.)
5. “Why I Had to Go” – Bishop Allen. People who weren’t necessarily fans of Bishop Allen’s latest power-pop single will rejoice at this eclectic, affected indie-pop tune reminiscent of their previous work.
7. “Hold Still” – Slow Magic. Threatening ODESZA’s place as my favorite electro artist right now, Slow Magic makes moody, ethereal moments out of the most minor of sounds. This one does open up into a bit of an epic slow jam, but never includes a ton of instruments to overwhelm you with.
8. “Trap” – Remedies. This smooth, well-crafted electro jam has strong Zelda/Final Fantasy vibes, and I’m totally down with that.
9. “Weightless” – Grand Pavilion. These newcomers take a slow jam/R&B angle on their electro work, complete with autotune reveries.
10. “Bark and Sticks” – Kosoti. I never thought I’d be into a fusion of alt-folk and funky rhythms, but lo and behold. Really unique mood here.
11. “We All Been There” – Chris Heller. Mmm, sometimes you just gotta have some piano-fronted blue-eyed soul/R&B in your life. Heller really nails the soulful chorus.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of instrumental music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.