1. “Away” – Heart Beach. Heart Beach is out-Pixie-ing the Pixies with this churning slice of plodding bass, washed-out guitar and yearning vocals. A+.
2. “Cavity” – Kuzin. Sometimes the vocal hook that seals it is in the verse, and so it goes with the yearning killer line of this track. You’ll be humming this one for a while.
3. “Gone Past” – Lore City. A lot of people want to invoke shoegaze, but few bands really inhabit the idea of the sound overwhelming a person in their entirety the way that Lore City does here. Slow movement, pounding drums, howling vocals, synth sheen over everything: this is how you create a wall of sound in 2015.
4. “He’s Not Real and He Ain’t Coming Back” – Twin River. The synth-laden, reverb-heavy soundscapes on this track recall the slow motion of the band’s titular geographical features. Let it wash over you.
5. “Wasting Time” – The Phantoms. The alt-rock drama of Anberlin meets Blur influences in vocal delivery for this high-contrast track.
6. “Dotted Line” – Bombay Harambee. Guitar rock with demonstrative, impassioned front men will always have a home. This particular brand makes me think of a slowed-down Arctic Monkeys.
7. “Fourth Quarter Funeral” – Velcro Mary. The thick, bassy guitars in this power-pop song fill up the track, but they never make the song feel leaden. Instead, the track moves sprightly along on a Foo Fighters backline and a snarly vocal line that never explodes.
8. “Universe” – Faith Healer. Some perky garage-rock with a mumbly female lead vocal creates a very cool vibe.
9. “Actual Alien” – American Culture. Scuzzy guitars; gated ’80s drums; distorted, nasally vocals. Sounds like a great entry into American garage rock culture to me.
10. “Time For Us to Move” – Full Trunk. We really should thank the Black Keys for re-popularizing blues rock. There are few ways to vibe harder than on a good blues-rock riff, like the one here.
Just about the only thing of Linda Marie Smith‘s Mearra~Selkie from the Sea that doesn’t look and sound 100% Celtic is the artist’s name. Smith’s album is a song cycle depicting the Celtic myth of the selkie: a seal that can shed its skin and become a human (a woman, as you may be able to guess).
The album isn’t an overdose of Celtic stereotypes (this isn’t a Riverdance equivalent); instead, it’s a set of gentle, lush tunes with the lilt and air of Ireland about them. Smith’s refined alto voice fits perfectly, leading the tunes with a earthy, storyteller’s vibe. The album largely sticks to a sound somewhere between piano-driven singer/songwriter, mystic new age a la Enya, and dramatic arrangements that wouldn’t be out of place in a musical, although there are occasional indie-pop moments (“Heaven Knows”). (This actually is a musical of sorts: there’s a visual accompaniment that was recently shown on PBS.) If you’re into dignified, refined Celtic vibes amid your quiet, Mearra~Selkie from the Sea should be on your list.
1. “Just What I Needed” – Wonderful Humans. Whatever the opposite of “reign of terror” is, WH is on that path. Their seemingly endless stream of high-energy, ’80s-inspired dance-pop singles continues with this tropical track.
2. “Summertime” – Ships Have Sailed. ShS are also on a hot streak: this latest tune is some combination of the Cars and All-American Rejects.
3. “Eternal Sunshine” – Memoryy. Yep, you can hook me with any invocation of steel drums. (They’re just so happy!) The rest of the track besides the chorus splits the difference between nu-disco and glitchy clicking–always fun.
4. “Too Damn Good” – JOA. The inimitable Jesse Owen Astin is back to making guitar-rock/electro-pop mini epics, and this one is a builder that grows to a huge apex and then fades away.
5. “She Speaks the Wave” – The Nursery. This song would have fit right in on radio when Interpol, The Killers, and The Bravery were all towering. Some real sleek, solid dance-rock here.
6. “Drive” – Ships Have Sailed. You know when Jimmy Eat World goes for a ballad but still gotta have the angsty energy? Ships Have Sailed power through this track with that same feel.
7. “Tears” – Prints. Dark, clubby electronic pop songs.are a dime a dozen, but Prints float above the pack by balancing your emotional needs with your club needs.
8. “Earth Not Above” – HÆLOS. Cinematic, evocative trip-hop mixed with some modern beats? Sign me up.
9. “Underlined Passages From Your Books” – Underlined Passages. Here’s some lush, walking-speed romance from members formerly of indie-rockers The Seldon Plan. Combining early ’00s indie-pop melodies with early ’00s emo guitar tone is a sweet spot these days.
1. “The Giving” – Matthew Squires and the Learning Disorders. Squires plays the traveling troubadour here, finding “poverty and magic all around me” in a New Orleans full of found sound, delicate guitar, his signature vocal style, and fitting trumpet.
2. “Red” – Mt. Wolf. Here’s a slow-burning, tension-releasing amalgam of acoustic guitar, beats, and falsetto that sounds like Bon Iver 2.0. Mmm, mmm, mmm.
3. “Heart” – Pistol Shrimp. The falsetto-filled acoustic version of this dance-rock banger sounds somewhere between Ben Gibbard and Ben Folds, which is pretty impressive. Maybe they should do this more often.
4. “Odell” – Lowland Hum. Afflicted, pastoral, theatrical indie-folk has previously belonged in my mind only to Bowerbirds. Move on over, Bowerbirds–Lowland Hum are here with a beautiful tune in that very specific mood.
5. “Cops Don’t Care pt. II” – Fred Thomas. Thomas follows up his epic debut single with this one, which is a lot simpler musically but just as powerful lyrically.
6. “Other Suns” – Magic Giant. With mandolin, cello, and harmonica, Magic Giant is doing their best to act the folk part of their folk rave name in this mid-tempo ballad.
7. “Love or Die” – Magic Giant. I know I just put them in this list, but this Lumineers/Twin Forks stomp-along is just too much fun to pass up.
8. “If It Don’t Kill You” – Family Folk Revival. Get that outlaw alt-country feel on and enjoy this low-slung, rootsy jam.
Full disclosure is important in journalism, so I have to point out that I was as surprised as anyone to find myself thanked in the liner notes of Fiery Crash‘s In Clover. I’ve covered Joshua Jackson (not the Paste editor) many times before and named For Tomorrow Will Worry About Itselftop EP of the year in 2013. Over those years we’ve become friends over e-mail, having never met in person. The chronology was music, then friendship–not the other way around. Okay, enough about that.
In Clover is the high-fi culmination of almost a dozen lo- to mid-fi releases under this and other names. Jackson bounced back and forth between garage rock, dream-pop, and fingerpicked singer/songwriter genres in each of his releases, and here he brings them all together. He opens with the dreamy pop of “Julie,” throws down some ’90s rock with the crunchy guitars of the title track, shows off his singer/songwriter side in the evocative “Loser Street,” and closes with the achingly beautiful acoustic instrumental “Meadowsville.” There are occasional forays into casio beats to back up his dreamy pop (“If You Were Mine”), violins for pathos (“Annie”), and the swift fingerpicking of Alexi Murdoch (“Loving Wish”). Jackson packs a lot into 13 songs. (For ease of use, the front half is louder than the back half.)
What saves In Clover from being an amorphous grab bag is the consistent production vibe (hazy around the edges, focused at the center) and Jackson’s comfortable baritone voice. His vocals guide the listener through each song, whether it be the hollering frustration of “The Divorce,” the yearning tones of “Julie,” or the soothing notes of “Loving Wish.” The most common vocal type sees Jackson surrounded by his own arrangements, leading as the center of the mix, but not its most prominent feature volume-wise. It’s not as speak-sung as CAKE, but it has the same sort of connection to the music: Jackson’s voice is shepherding the rest of the instruments along, even if they’re running out in front of him. It makes for an album that feels relaxed and comfortable while still being confident and tight in the performances.
The centerpiece of the record is “Steeples,” which starts out with simple fingerpicked acoustic guitar and voice. The arrangement builds around that core, bringing in drifting background vocals, gentle electric guitar and distant drums. The lyrics are questions of religion and existentialism, giving us a peek into an ongoing conversation about life: “I’m trying to answer you/dear brother of mine.” Jackson’s vocals are compelling without being theatrical, emotive without being maudlin. The song floats by without seeming to take the four minutes of its run time.
The brilliant In Clover packs a lot of sounds into 13 songs, but all of it hangs together. It’s the sort of listening experience that takes you through an emotional and sonic narrative. Fiery Crash is on top of his game as a melodist and arranger. If you’re looking for an album that will push you through spring and get you to summer, this should be your jam. In other words, if you’re into dream-pop, indie-rock, or tightly arranged singer/songwriter work, you should really check this out.
Jasmine Kaset’s video for “Lionshare” is a beautiful indie-pop tune set to gorgeous visuals of a natural history museum. Clips like this make me think, “It’s not rocket science, people.” But this sort of stark simplicity is way more difficult than the finished product looks: mad props to the editors.
Dreamy nostalgia is an effect desired by many, both in the visual and sonic realms. French for Rabbits accomplish the much-sought-after feel with a soft, grainy video style, a gentle indie-rock vibe, and heart-tugging scenes.
This Vienna Ditto song is great, and the accompanying video is bonkers. (The ending is deeply enjoyable.)
Brian Lopez’s “Crossfire Cries” clip is hilarious on its own, but it’s even better if you’re watching for details. If you stop the video on the frame where the contract is offered to our hapless office worker, you can actually read the text, which is a humorous essay all its own on office life. I love detailed in-jokes. Thank you, Brian Lopez and co.
The “Get It Right” video from San Francisco folk outfit Hunters. depicts the various stages of a relationship in scenes, including a literally fiery dissolution. The narrative fits neatly with the dramatic, staccato arrangement from the band and Rosa del Duca’s impassioned vocal delivery. The track comes from their 2014 album Treeline, which I reviewed.
Hippo Campus, here with a chase scene that resolves in some serious deep thoughts.
Twin River, here with a chase scene that resolves in some serious feels. I hope this isn’t what it’s like to be a dad.
Mad props to Lily & Madeleine for making their icy, watery video look like the how the despondent, detached “Blue Blades” sounds.
It’s Daylight Savings Time, which means it’s time for long, lazy, light-drenched evenings. The chipper, perky, unassuming guitar-pop of Charlie Belle‘s Get to Know is the perfect soundtrack to that quest. The trio sounds like an updated version of mid-era R.E.M., which is to say that there’s plenty of jangle, wordplay, and barely-contained energy.
Vocalist Jendayi Bonds uses her low voice in an easy and carefree manner, never seeming to push or strain. The results are five tracks that float along with an almost preternatural chill: the sound is relaxed without purposefully saying “YO WE ARE CHILL OVER HERE.” It’s the sort of band that you turn on for one song and end up listening to the whole thing, maybe twice. Here’s to spring.
Brooklyn Doran‘s There’s a Light On shows off a clear, bright, unadorned voice and arrangements of corresponding class. Doran has a singer/songwriter’s heart, but she’s got enough vintage torch in her songs that muted trumpet, stand-up bass, gentle bongos and staccato piano play a big role.
Four of the five tunes stick to the smoky lounge club vibe: “Cold Outside” and “Look Away” sound like the club is in 1920s Brooklyn due to the arrangements, while “Lansdowne” and “S.S. Calamity (Sink This Ship)” sound like the late ’90s or early ’00s in their gentle, piano-forward approach. “S.S. Calamity” builds into a show-stopper musically and vocally, while “Lansdowne” builds its emotive core off her evocative vocals. They’re all slow, smoldering, yearning.
Then there’s the title track, which is a perky, charming neo-trad-jazz tune with a great vocal melody and an infectious vibe. “There’s a Light On” uses modern background vocals, that muted trumpet, and fun percussion to really sell the song. It’s short and simple, but the songwriting is excellent: it doesn’t overstay its welcome, and it gets me to push play again.
Brooklyn Doran’s debut EP There’s a Light On puts forward remarkably mature songwriting, arranging, and production. She’s got that special something, and it’s not obscured in any way on this EP. These five songs pass quick, but they won’t be the only thing you hear from Doran. You should get to know the work of Brooklyn Doran.
I was watching Lonnie Walker open for the Collection (you may have heard me rave about them once or twice), and I noted to my wife that fuzzed-out guitar-based indie-rock has been immortal ever since its inception in the early ’80s. The Rutabega‘s new Shiny Destination 7″ provides more evidence for this claim: the duo make the sort of indie-rock that feels timeless and fresh at the same time.
The two songs here barely make it above five minutes collectively, but they pack a lot in to that small space. The title track opens with a fuzzy, warm, immediately relatable riff before kicking in the drums, which take up the bass and percussion roles in this outfit. The drums do their best to fill up the space with splashing cymbals, punk-inspired snare, and some surf-inspired vibes too. The drums and guitar can be described as surpassing “tight” and going straight on to fusion: it’s hard to imagine the tune without all the bits from each instrument. The vocals top it all off: hectic, nervous, jittery, but not abrasive or underconfident, they sell the track in tone and melody. It becomes the sort of indie anthem that you can feel in your bones, even if isn’t mixed so as to point out “YOU SHOULD RAISE YOUR FIST HERE!” Awkward pogoing should ensue.
“Ladder” continues the super-tight connection between guitar and drums in a slower, quieter vein. It’s not exactly a ballad, because of the guitar crunch, but it has some winsome, pensive, emotive qualities that make it more of a rainy-day guitar-rock tune than a party tune. The vocal melody shines here, as the vocalist put in some poignant melodic hooks that really hit me.
Guitar-rock needs to be in top form to catch my ear, because it’s everywhere. The Rutabega’s Shiny Destination 7″ is top-shelf guitar rock, deeply worthy of your attention–even if (especially if) you don’t believe there’s much good going on in the genre.
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.