Like an emerald mustang with a black racer stripe, Kalden Bess’s Jet Lag EP hits 60 mph in five seconds. The first two songs, “Rabbit Hole” and a remix by Jon Gurd, are techno-heavy, house-beat tracks that made me feel like I was punching it into gear with 500+ horsepower in an action movie. Just as intensely alluring as the original, this remix adds subtle details, such as a slight muting halfway through. It sounded, quite literally, like I was racing through a tunnel, with the sound dropping out a bit and then epic, bass-bumping diapason returning seconds later — barely enough time for me to hold my breath until reaching the other side.
The synth work in “Jet Lag (Original Mix)” is tight, severe and sexy-spooky. The overall vibe is eternal, like a warehouse party that will never end, or a blunt cruise with a full tank of gas. Clean hi-hats and a bumping bassline light up the car radio with flashing red and purple stereo lights. Adding a metallic charm, The Developer remix bolsters the original with an industriously atmospheric flair. Like a recording of a penny factory’s internal operations, the beat is repetitive and efficient.
“Slower (Original Mix)” was a personal favorite because of the muffled vocals, muted beat, and pounding-on-the-door rhythm that reminded me of making beats on cafeteria tables. I can almost hear my middle school classmates free-styling over the thud-th-thud of our rolled up fists, silverware clinking against trays.
Robotic and motorized, Kalden Bess’s Jet Lag is futuristic in a gritty, Clockwork Orange type of way. With tireless techno beats and pristine production work, Jet Lag is a rumbling, well-oiled engine of an EP that doesn’t want to drive us anywhere but to an after-hours illegal speedway.–Rachel Haney
Stephen Babcock‘s “Someday” is a smooth acoustic pop track that alerts you his “thing for Southern girls / wrapped in sundresses and pearls.” There’s rarely been a more confident statement of intended audience since John Mayer threw down “Your Body is a Wonderland.”
Babcock has more than a little of Mayer’s early-career suave to his pop songwriting, as he easily lays down a syncopated vocal line over lightly funky guitar and screamin’ organ. But it’s not played off as nerdy cool, like a Mraz tune: this is all eyebrow-raised flirtation and suggestion. (Just listen to those lyrics for more proof.) The results are both familiar and fresh, like a suit that you wear for the first time and automatically feel right in.
“Someday” kicks off Said and Done, where Babcock continues to develop his acoustic-pop milieu. He follows the opening salvo with “Lines of a Love Song,” which is actually a looking-back tune; there’s major wistfulness in the lyrics and a strong dose of melancholy in the verses, but Babcock can’t resist a major-key chorus with a catchy vocal line. Pop songs like those form the majority of Said and Done, with subtle variety throughout: while “Tightrope” and “Kings” continue the full-band alt-pop funkiness, “Worth” punches up the drive a bit by infusing a bit of rock push into the pop tune; “Amy” has some introspective singer/songwriter touches in the guitar line and the lyrics. “Cape Cod” amps up the funky and puts it in a minor key. Without losing his core style, Babcock is able to put distinctive spins on the tracks.
But Babcock’s not just a southern-lovin’, acoustic-toting good ‘ol boy. Babcock’s multi-faceted tenor is a selling point of the record, as the subtle touches in his delivery set the songs apart from other alt-pop tunes. He can easily shift his delivery between evocative and dry, creating tension between verses and chorus–sometimes even between lines. It’s clear that he’s got strong control of what his voice can do, from soaring melodies to wry speak-singing bits. That’s a rare, stand-out skill.
The eight songs of Said and Done show Babcock as an alt-pop singer-songwriter with a strong control of his voice and craft. If you’re looking for some bright, tight, well-penned acoustic pop to slot next to Matt Nathanson, Griffin House, and (yup) John Mayer, you’ll find much to enjoy in Stephen Babcock’s work.
Served stark with a frosted tint, Unalaska’s “Air Transylvania” video features clips of coastal highways, snowcapped mountains, aerial views of clouds, and airplane wings soaring through a pink horizon. Footage was shot with iPhones during various vagabonding, authentically portraying a hauntingly beautiful, natural world.
Black and white contrast sharply capture the detailed facial expressions on these four lovely ladies. Devereaux’s “List It” is cheeky, brazen, and smart; it’s more of a photo shoot with the girl next door than an ostentatious video.
Even if you have witnessed horse masks, raining 500 mg capsules, and a series of neon geometric shapes that are like a bad trip from the ‘80s, you haven’t witnessed it like this. And if a video like that sounds too eccentric for your liking, just know I watched a full minute of a YouTube boiler room set with Total Unicorn’s “Mini Knee” accidentally playing over it, and thought it this was the dopest boiler set I’d ever heard. Alas, it was “Mini Knee” two tabs over.–Rachel Haney
Marlon Williams’ “Dark Child” video is terrifyingly compelling. I won’t spill anything about it other than you should watch it closely and listen to the lyrics.
It’s extremely rare that I find a depiction of sexuality in a music video that isn’t ribald or gauche. This beautifully choreographed duet dance is remarkable in its beauty and sensuousness without being explicit or overly vague.
On the other end of the spectrum, here’s a Bollywood-esque adventure story told through action figures (featuring the wrestler Sting, April O’Neill from TMNT, and Magneto). I’m sure The Noise FM intended a pun somewhere in there about the fact that this is a cover of a Police song and the action figure Sting is involved, but perhaps I was thinking too hard among the hilarity.
Stephen Lee‘s West of Twenty-Threeis a brash, enthusiastic country record: Lee’s whiskey-soaked voice runs ragged over grounded strum, noisy drums, and the occasional melody-contributing violin. It’s refreshing to hear big, bold, unapologetic tunes that aren’t a million-miles-an-hour.
Some might call this folk-punk or some variant of folk–and the speeds occasionally get there for folk-punk–but at its heart this is a country record, interested in the daily lives of people doing what they do: “Blood Brothers” is about kids who took the titular oath, “Jet Lag Blues” follows a traveling salesman, and “Gossip” is about, well, gossip about town. (“Bukowski” even invokes the bard of the common man, positing that he’d be jealous of the narrator’s life.) Lee’s delivery of the lyrics ranges from wry and self-aware (“Cans & Beers”) to even-handed (“Bukowski”) to raging (“One More”), showing his vocal diversity right along with his songwriting diversity.
There are a lot of different looks here, musically. The brash aforementioned tunes are counterpointed by the subdued “Again and Again,” which includes pensive banjo plucks and a wistful vibe, and solo closer “New Wyman Park Restaurant,” which is a pure singer/songwriter tune. Lee’s diversity keeps the album fresh, making West of Twenty-three a blast of fun that’s able to keep your attention even if you’re not in an adrenaline-fueled mood.
1. “Russian Roulette” – Sons of London. Well, damn. Right when I thought Deep Elm was out of the game for post-Blink-182 emo-punk-pop, they go and drop this on us. This is one of the most memorable, can’t-stop-listening pop-punk tunes I’ve heard in a long, long time.
2. “Solitude” – Alpenglow. The good people of Alpenglow seem like the sort of good-natured, thoughtful, interesting people who I’d like to get a beer with and talk about water rights politics. I think they’d most likely have an interesting stance, tell me an anecdote or two, and leave me feeling better off in my intellectual life. I think I mean that this song is smart and fun in equal parts, but that’s reductive and makes it look like I didn’t try (although I think Alpenglow would probably be cool with either description, because when you know yourself, you care less about what others are thinking about it.)
3. “Roll It” – Nap Eyes. Nap Eyes has my vote for breakout band of the year–their loping, engaging indie-rock tips its hat to all the coolest references without feeling derivative. “Roll It” just sounds so immediate and fresh that it’s hard to imagine people won’t jump on this train.
4. “Walking In My Sleep” – Kris Orlowski. Orlowski takes another step farther from his folk roots and closer to an indie-rock home with the debut single from his upcoming record Often in the Pause. Crunchy guitar noise, headbobbing rhythms, and his unchanged ability to write/deliver a compelling vocal melody power this tune that seems always ready to burst but never quite explodes, giving a nice tension.
5. “The Uninvited Guest” – Gladiola. If there’s a Weakerthans-sized hole in your heart, Gladiola is here to fill it with tight power-pop melodies, tight lyrics and an overall sense of weary-yet-determined urban knowledge.
6. “In This Lifetime” – Scary Little Friends. Big, punchy power-pop with a bit of glam creeping in around the edges of the vocals.
7. “Lava” – Pleasant Grove. The distillation of an expansive divorce record that took a decade to complete, “Lava” combines the tough guitar exterior and gentle melodic interior that comprise the tensions of The Heart Contortionists’ early -to-mid ’00s indie-rock. Death Cab for Cutie and Grandaddy fans will find much to love here.
8. “Butterflies” – Wyland. Do you miss The Joshua Tree? Fear no more: Wyland’s got your back with this arena-filling, stadium-rocking anthem.
9. “Come Down” – Water District. Remember that weird, brief moment where Silversun Pickups made grunge into a cool indie-rock thing? Water District remembers, creating their own pensive, emotive brand of grunge-inspired indie-alt-rock.
10. “From Far Away” – SayReal. This infectious, smile-inducing tune will thrill those who like good pop songs and those wished that Michael Franti and Spearhead sounded more like their one unusual pop hit all the time.
11. “Start Right Here” – Jennifer O’Connor. O’Connor takes the basic elements of modern indie-pop songwriting (jangly guitars, plain vocal style, catchy melodies, full-but-not-noisy drums) and turns out gold. I don’t know how that works, but it does.
12. “Guns” – Andy Metz. Punchy, rhythmic piano-pop verses open up into a smooth, memorable chorus, complete with timely political commentary on gun control.
Iván Muela‘s Unsoundis a complex release of modern classical work that doesn’t spend too long in any one place. While Muela’s interests vary, the mood palette he creates spans a comfortable space along a whole spectrum of emotionality and doesn’t become overwhelming.
Experimental opener “Lemon” is 1:25 of sparse guitar and several types of keys one after the other, accompanied by the soundtrack of crickets chirping; “Bitter” warps cello sounds with technology and layers them over indistinct conversations, dripping water, and eerie clicking percussion. These pieces push the bounds of Muela’s sound, forming the outer edge of what he’s interested in accomplishing on Unsound; they are compelling in a compositional way.
At the other end of his emotional spectrum are slow, elegant, piano-led tunes like “Inwreathe” and “Sonder.” “Sonder” is purposefully delicate, surrounded only by distant strings–it plays with the major/minor key boundary, sounding like water gently burbling over rocks. “Inwreathe” is no less interested in beauty, but it’s darker in hue, more self-awarely sad. The majority of the work on Unsound is pitched in the sparse/beautiful/sad realm, making it a cohesive listen. There are flashes of light throughout, pushing through the melancholy, just enough to make the compositions feel warm instead of austere. If you’re looking for some beautiful piano compositions with a touch of experimental edge, Iván Muela’s Unsound should be up your alley.
1. “A Better Life” – Supersmall. A good-natured, walking-speed tune that gives more than it asks back from you: you don’t have to listen hard to enjoy, but there are charms for those who listen deeply to the early ’00s, Parachutes/Turin Brakes-style work.
2. “May the Stars Fall at Your Door” – Andrew Adkins. We all need an encouraging blessing every now and then–Adkins provides uplifting lyrics with an equally uplifting folk arrangement (complete with harmonica). Totally great work here.
3. “Nowhere” – Swaying Wires. Tina Karkinen’s confident vocals give a levity to this serious, acoustic-led indie-pop tune.
4. “Know It All” – Bitterheart. Brash, immediate, strum-heavy, full-throated folk-pop that marries the enthusiasm of folk-punk with the good-hearted charm of a folk-pop tune. If all their work is like this, their album’s going to be a blast.
5. “One Three Nine” – Jacob Metcalf. Fluttering, ethereal folk that stays grounded basically by force of will, a la Andrew Bird.
6. “Chandelier” – Russell Howard. This gender-flipped cover of Sia’s tune creates a stark atmosphere by modifying Howard’s vocals and putting them over a delicate guitar accompaniment and subtle percussive beat.
7. “White Light Doorway” – Florist. The band has mastered the skill of keeping a song together while lead singer Emily Sprague purposefully sounds like she’s falling apart. The tension there is beautiful and weighty.
8. “While You Stand” – Michael Nau. The wide-eyed naivete of Page France is long gone, but the absurd ease with which Nau pens a lyric and fits it to a simple guitar line persists. It hits me.
10. “Secrets” – Nick Zubeck. Laidback chill doesn’t get more laidback than this.
11. “Monde” – Stranded Horse. Fleet, powerful fingerpicking contrasts a laissez-faire vocal mood for a knotty, beautiful tune that feels like it fell out of a Wes Anderson movie somewhere.
12. “Black Gold” – Black Country. There are few substances so evocative as oil, with its viscous flow, vibrant sheen, wealth-making potential, and divisive opinion-making. Black Country spells out a narrative of the open spaces, where finding oil is the difference between emptiness of landscape and buzzing life–hanging the promise of oil over the head of a barren, windswept instrumental landscape.
13. “We’ll Get By” – The Singer and the Songwriter. One of the more un-Google-able bands working today drops a stately, moving tune that includes accordion and shuffling snare under a beautiful alto vocal melody.
14. “Wanderer’s Waltz” – Youth Policy. Here’s a wintry, stark tune composed of breathy, Elliott Smith-esque vocals, cascading fingerpicking, and a moody sense of melancholia.
15. “Ghost Blue” – Sparrows Gate. If I walked into a bar where Sparrows Gate was playing this moving, piano-driven ballad-esque tune, I hope it would be to work off a breakup instead of celebrate a success. “Gravitas” doesn’t sell it well enough.
16. “Goes Without Saying” – Melaena Cadiz. A relaxing, unspooling, wandering tune that just feels lovely.
17. “Kicking You Out” – Merival. Few things get me more than a raw, open-hearted acoustic tune with some room echo. Merival’s strong songwriting skills are on full display here, with nothing else added but some harmony vocals. As they say: all the feels.
The album art of a horseback-riding knight on a material flag was enough to pique my interest for Knight, but the 32-second-long intro of medieval monk-chanting confirmed I was listening to one of the most eccentric EPs I have ever heard. Greg Buzzer’s Knight cleverlycombines thick-cut electronic textures with material you haven’t heard since the 12th century.
Bass, vibrato, and deep vocal pauses bestow upon Knight a Renaissance feel, while electronic aspects appear later in the songs, such as the house beat in “Rise Water.” The sound of a chain clanking tugs and weighs on the percussive beast, adding a gritty, metallic lag to the tempo. For as deep and masculine as the vocals are, they fare lightly, resulting in Buzzer sounding like a singing, railway-working, grave-digging ghost. His vocals are like the lightweight, impenetrable armor Kate the blacksmith makes for Heath Ledger in A Knight’s Tale.
Speaking of A Knight’s Tale, I imagine the track “Knight” to be the pump-up song before Heath Ledger slams down his armor and raises his lance in the final jousting battle against his nemesis. The unexpected string section in the military drumline of “All the Vultures” instills a similar fiery determination and excitement. And the last track, “Oven,” as well — it hauls a serious heaviness, but adds an exotic Eastern flair with the sound of belly dancers clinking their brass finger cymbals.
“Slave to my VoDoO” has a rough, kids-I-never-hung-out-with-but-admired sensibility that reminded me of The Gorillaz. Guitar plucking and subtly-accented vocals give it an all-American, bluesy twang — an O Brother, Where Art Thou? vibe, if you will.
With phrases like, “Mother, can you hear me? / I think I got lost in the dead space / help me remember the earth,” “Mother” presents a series of attention-demanding lyrics and a battle-time drumline that gives way to a synth vortex. It sounds like a crusade of knights is about to fight an army of extraterrestrial beings.
Knight is the uncensored, enrapturing battle between musical elements from a feudal age and modern-day rock-n-roll-inspired electronica. Greg Buzzer is the rock-n-roll King Arthur. —Rachel Haney
Swedish band Muxika77’s third release, Death and the Magpie, is a difficult album to describe: there are eight songs, each one different from the rest. The overall sound of the album is both vocally and instrumentally layered–each song contains so many instruments that I don’t think I even caught all of them. Listening to Death and the Magpie is unlike anything else; it’s an experimental experience, where each track serves as a unique excursion on the journey.
The album starts off eerie-sounding with guitar quaking and screechy noises in “Agelstern Varwe.” After about a minute, the song transitions into a calmer instrumentation with what sounds like a steel-stringed guitar, an instrument often used throughout. A drumset accompanies the guitar, and Krantz’s voice joins the mix. Frontman Johan Krantz’s effortless tenor voice has tonal qualities similar to the lead singer of Fleet Foxes, yet deeper and darker. Harmonic background vocals pop in and out of the track. A collection of wonderfully ominous baritone “oh”s (also seen elsewhere: “B.Y.F.M.,” “Resan,” “Scythe, Pilatus”) splits the long track into two. Spanish-inspired guitar rhythms enter immediately after the “oh”s. The instrumentation eventually transitions into being more orchestral-heavy with multiple beautiful violins and other string instruments. The more than eight-minute-long song is nothing less than the first stretch of a journey in another world: the world of Muxika77.
The next few excursions on the trip, “B.Y.F.M.,” “Corvidae Necklace,” and “Resan” are less complex than “Agelstern Varwe,” but that does not mean that they are at all simple. “B.Y.F.M.” pairs the banjo with the violin, which makes this track’s instrumentation rather melancholic. “Corvidae Necklace” picks up at the chorus, but in general maintains a slower pace and a simpler sound. Fittingly, “Corvidae” is a term that refers to the family of birds containing crows, ravens, and rooks, etc.; the first lyric is, “I asked a blackbird to teach me/ And I listened closely when she spoke.”
“Resan,” Swedish for “trip,” takes its listeners on quite a spanish-inspired trip by highlighting both Krantz’s amazing voice and the steel-stringed guitar that sounds very flamenco-esque when accompanied by rhythmic clapping. One of my favorite moments from “Resan” is a soft moment accompanied by gentle strums of the guitar, where Krantz sings, “Goodbye for now./ We are set free.” Then the dark baritone “oh”s take over.
“Löftet, for Fardoe” is my favorite song off the album. The piano is the primary instrument for this song, although other elements such as percussion, strings and the electric guitar round out the instrumentation. The song itself has this wonderful circus-like guitar rhythm that comes at the chorus and keeps the song playful. The lyrics at the chorus are also really fun: “ We’ll keep singing / we’ll keep dancing / we’ll keep drinking.” And then, out of nowhere, a squealing guitar disrupts us midway through the song. It also repeats later on. The guitar serves as a type of antivenom that keeps the playfulness in check. Afterall, an album entitled Death and the Magpie can’t get too light.
“Scythe, Pilatus” closes out the album. Unlike the other tracks, this one begins with brass, including multiple trumpets, which echo throughout the song. Besides the intermittent brass, a pristine piano is the track’s main form of accompaniment. Pilatus is a majestic mountain in Central Switzerland, and this song sounds peaceful like a mountain, until the electric guitar explodes the track in a very rock & roll way. Those awesome deep baritone “oh’”s then close out the album.
Death And The Magpie is an experience unlike any other. Even in my explanation, I feel I fall too short. The only thing I can really say is listen and take the journey for yourself. Muxika77 will surprise you.–Krisann Janowitz
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.