Midnight Pilot has spent a lot of time since their last release listening to new music. Their latest EP The Good Life expands on their previous alt-country-meets-Paul-Simon palette in all directions, throwing in sunshiny indie-pop melodies, Dawes-ian roots rock, and even some Muse-esque high drama rock. Listeners are in for some sharp lefts and unexpected detours, but they’ll end up with a smile nonetheless.
The opening cut makes their new approach obvious from the getgo, as “Offer Up My Love” has a “woo-woo-ooo” chorus that will put you in a breezy Southern California mood. It’s dropped right into their roots-rock verses, which isn’t as jarring as it would seem from writing that out. The rock has an American tinge, like Ivan and Alyosha’s. The title track is even more wide-open rock’n’roll, a major-key romp that declares: “I’m living the good life / nothing comes easy / I’m living the good life / for free / yeah-yeah / yeah-yeah.”
Things get a bit darker on “Follow Where You Lead,” which has disco vibes in the bass rhythms and stabbing string style, but has some Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois approaches to background vocals in the intro. The chorus is a bit sunnier than the minor key verses, but still the song has “drama” written over it. This is most spectacularly evident in the deconstructed bridge section, which drops to almost nothing before ramping up to an almost Muse-esque wall of noise. Closer “You’re My Friend” splits the difference between major and minor keys with some ’80s influences and Beach Boy ba-da-da-das. It’s eclectic, but it all hangs together.
The Good Life is an EP that shows a band experimenting and maturing rapidly. To hold together as many influences as they’ve included in this EP while still maintaining a recognizable core sound is no easy feat for any band. That all of the four songs are enjoyable is even more impressive; these aren’t just technical feats, they’re enjoyable ones. If you’re into good ‘ol American music, check out Midnight Pilot’s latest.
Marc with a C is a pop culture-addicted goofball with an insightful eye on culture at large. He’s the sort of guy who can and will critique the unspoken presumptions of our culture (“Ethics in Gaming”–a Gamergate reference, but the song isn’t about Gamergate), dedicate a whole song to an elaborate dick joke (“The Ballad of Dick Steel”), incisively analyze interpersonal relationships (“Epic Fail”), ask the hard questions that we all wonder about under the guise of joking statements (“Where’s My Giant Robot”) and suckerpunch listeners with a beautiful love song that includes one of the best twists I’ve heard in a long time (“Make You Better”) in one album. All that right there is enough to commend Unicorns Get More Bacon to you.
The music is solid too. The bulk of the tunes on Unicorns Get More Bacon are stripped down power-pop tunes played on electric or acoustic guitar, although towards the end Marc invests in some larger arrangements to go with some of his longer songs. The tunes have hummable melodies and instruments that don’t get in the way of the lyrics or the melodies, which is important–this album is pretty squarely about the lyrics.
This is also a bit of a “solo” record; you want to hear this one on your own to get to know it and love it. Or, you can get to know it with friends who will learn the lyrics and sing along with you very loudly. That would work too. But it’s not a record that works as background music–Marc with a C wants to talk with you on Unicorns Get More Bacon, and if you’re interested in Marc’s fourth-wall-breaking, here-there-and-everywhere lyrical style, you’ll have a great time in that conversation.
Trevor Green‘s Voice of the Wind is somewhat like an Indigenous Australian Graceland; the Californian Green, who already included didgeridoo in his music, actually traveled to Australia to learn more about the music of that country before making this album. The songs are a mix of laidback folk, Australian music, and modern indie-rock touches.
The main difference from Graceland is that Paul Simon wanted to make a pop record that celebrated South African sounds with his own, very American lyrics on top–Green’s songs draw heavily not only from the sounds of the land, but the lyrics and religious themes of the land. The second difference is in seriousness: Voice sounds more like The Shepherd’s Dog-era Iron & Wine than a pop record, as the folk and Australian sounds mesh in ways that evoke Sam Beam’s attempts at expanding his intimate sound to include more instruments.
This means that the album is by turns incredibly intense and then very solemn; tunes like “Red Road” are a breath of fresh air next to tunes which sound like Tusk-era Fleetwood Mac. But throughout the whole record, there’s a very clear sense of being outside the normal bounds of what acoustic music is generally like. If you’re adventurous, Trevor Green’s Voice of the Wind is a trip worth taking.
Reddening West‘s debut EP Where We Startedreminds me of Austin’s Central Presbyterian Church, which is in my mind the far-and-away best venue at SXSW. The towering space allows music to gather majesty during its rise to the rafters and return to my ears, imbuing already gorgeous work with extra grandeur.
The warm, full folk tunes that Reddening West puts together would be perfect for that space, as they have gravitas to spare while still maintaining strong melodicism and soothing arrangements. Fans of the Barr Brothers will be particularly excited to hear the dense arrangements of tunes like “Golden Light,” while those more into country will be charmed by closer “Every Wind.” The thread that runs through each of the tunes is a clear-eyed focus on creating beautiful work; it’s a wonderful present to listen to. I look forward to what Reddening West will put forward in the future.
SN!TA, the self-titled album by one-man-band Say No! To Architecture, is woozy, warm, and inviting. Groovy bass lines, far out vocals, and layered guitar hug listeners like a handcrafted Navajo blanket would form to their bodies on a dewy morning. For as sonically complex as SN!TA is, the record comes off as casual and rustic, with steady rhythms and a Western desert flair.
Simmering electronic starts “Wieder’s Floor” off, dissipating into a consistent, catchy bass line. Allen Roizman’s dizzying vocals capture an airy, hypnotic experience, like the commencing jam at a desert rave.
Similar electronic distortion is used at the start of “Bullet Proof Liquor Store.” It seduces the listener with subtle tambourine and a motivating rhythm that propels the track toward a climactic sonic horizon. Say No! To Architecture shines in the mobilizing build up and progression that presents itself on every song.
Western flair seeps into the record on “Get Sick,” which incorporates finger-snapping and shiny, sharp tambourine. The far-away vocals make “Get Sick” sound like a Western flick. It has a badass, Johnny Cash feel to it, but with spacey vocals. This vibe is further accentuated on “Cocaine, Eh,” where rattling tambourine shakes sound like the metallic clank of spurs hitting ground as our cowboy struts towards his duel.
Things turn a bit more alternative rock on “Detainees,” which is more hard-hitting than the spacier tracks, like the masterfully layered “Fall in Love at Tape Mountain,” or one of my favorites–the warm, lulling, yellow-colored “Hives.”
Each track on SN!TA allows itself to bloom. They ride on a perfectly straight, X-Acto knife-cut trajectory, like each track must reach its own sonic horizon by song’s end. And Say No! To Architecture reaches it each time. —Rachel Haney
Ashley Riley‘s “This Town” is an ode to everyone who feels that magnetic pull of a small town, even when they’ve gone off to the big city. You can take the person out of the town, they say…
Riley’s hometown reminiscences are sung in a dusky alto and set over an arrangement that splits the difference between old-school country and modern singer/songwriter. (With Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton becoming cool, it might be the country that’s the “cool” half these days.)
The drums and bass hold down the frame of the song, while the electric guitar pushes on the bounds of both country and singer/songwriter. It’s ultimately a tune that’s just as accessible and understandable as the lyrical statement it makes. If you’re looking for a smooth, easy tune to help you relax in a hammock on a spring afternoon, here’s one for you.
Benevolus’ “Go” starts off with a bang: a cymbal splash sets off a rhythmic, hypnotizing guitar strum and rumbling percussion. These two elements drive the mood for the whole tune. The percussion sounds like it’s being really hammered out, but with soft mallets: this gives it an earthy, organic sort of feel due to its lack of sharp edges and snapping hits. This unusual percussion choice makes it actually more a feature than the guitar, as the mesmerizing, consistent guitar strum forms a foundation for the drums and the vocals to play around on top of.
Composer Ryan Beppel’s vocals jump in the fray in a dramatic way as well: Beppel multi-tracks his voice to make himself sound like an enthusiastic, energetic choir. His penchant for hollered, punchy exclamations and wordless melodic runs match the wide-open feel of the percussion. Beppel’s work has been likened to Animal Collective crossed with Fleet Foxes, and that’s a totally appropriate call. “Go” is an adventurous, impressive track that really puts a best foot forward. I’m intrigued to hear more by Benevolus; the creative approach to using standard songwriting elements points to the emergence of a unique new songwriting voice.
The video for “Go” is also intriguing–Beppel runs through the streets of a snowy NYC like a modern-day George Bailey, but the ending of the video leaves it a bit uncertain as to his goals and the results of his quest. It’s beautiful to see the Big Apple in all its snowy glory, and you get an interesting little tale along the way.
Underlined Passages‘ The Fantastic Questis a grower: an album that doesn’t hit you with the same force the first time as it does the second, third or fourth time. In our attention-deficit culture, there’s not as much love for growers as there used to be, so I’m proud to be giving a shout-out to Underlined Passages’ second record on Mint 400 Records. (Full disclosure: I told Michael Nestor of Underlined Passages about Mint 400 Records.)
Instead of traversing the boundary between emo and dream pop as in their previous work, Quest falls firmly in the indie rock camp, anchored by ever-present guitars, firm drumming, and evocative vocal melodies. Tunes like “Everyone Was There” have an up-tempo approach that recall Jimmy Eat World more than American Football, with the guitars churning away (without getting too gritty). Other tunes like “Arabesque” set the guitars against the bass and drums in a tension–the production emphasizes the drumming without pushing it too far up in the mix. This choice gives the album a tight, cohesive feel.
The vocals are one of the main parts of the growing–at first Nestor’s vocal lines seem to blend in too well with the instruments, but subsequent listens adjusted my ear to the arrangement and started to draw me in to his unadorned, non-ostentatious vocal style. I found myself humming the vocal melodies after the second and third listen.
The Fantastic Quest is an unfussy, unpretentious album that reveals layers of careful thought over multiple listens. From the songwriting to the performances to the production, the work has charms for those who listen closely. Take some time with Underlined Passages; don’t be surprised if they win you over.
Supersmall‘s Silent Moon has a distinctly British feel, despite being a NYC-based duo. (Vocalist/songwriter Colin Dempsey is Irish, but that’s not the same.) It might be the formal pop angles on the songwriting, or perhaps the confident dignity with which the vocals are delivered. Maybe it’s the ability to convey emotion without getting maudlin.
Whatever it is, Supersmall know how to write walking-speed, acoustic-led tunes that wouldn’t feel out of place in a charming/quirky indie film. The duo leads off with “A Better Life,” which features perky strumming, joyous trumpets, peppy drumming, and a distant organ for color. If Beirut stripped out its world music aspirations, this sprightly work might be what resulted.
The tune is a fine primer for the release, which includes the Nick Drake-ian guitar vibe and beautiful vocal melodies of “Silent Moon” and “Siren,” the major-key folk of “Riot,” and the country-esque “Home.” There are some more serious tunes, but Supersmall is at their best when they’re creating major-key work with an eye toward thoughtful arrangements and careful pop elements. Silent Moon is where elegant meets excitable with an acoustic guitar in its hand–in other words, it’s worth the time of a wide swath of music listeners, from indie-pop lovers to hardcore acoustic fans.
100 Watt Horse’s It May Very Well Dois an experimental folk/indie-pop release: it’s one fifteen-minute track with interludes connecting various sections that are distinct enough to elsewhere be called songs. The duo incorporate tape hiss, nature sounds, acoustic guitars, distant synths, modulated vocals, static, and more into their inventive, attractive amalgam.
The opening salvo features precise, measured guitar work and a dreamy female vocal line before unfolding into the sounds of a swamp as a transition to a hazy indie-pop section. A woozy guitar line is matched by a leisurely male/female duet and balanced by a steadfast drumbeat and bass line. It all feels very open, raw, and natural–even when it transitions into a power-pop tune a la The Cars. I could go on explaining the release, but that should be enough to hook your interest and not spoil all the surprises (we’re about a third through the release at this point).
Suffice it to say, 100 Watt Horse has a lot of ideas, the talent to pull them off, and the skill to arrange it all into one impressive sitting. If you’re up for clever, intricate, thoughtful work from people pushing their own boundaries (and maybe yours), check this one out.–Stephen Carradini
“Rosebush”– Goldlight. I love it when a song starts off deceptively simple and progressively builds towards its climax. I enjoy the artist’s unique voice, but the driving beat and knockout instrumentation steal the show here. Listening to this track makes me want to blast it in my car, roll the windows down and drive fast– not many tracks stir that up within me.
“Tired”– Ashley Shadow. The layered instrumentation and unassuming vocals pair beautifully. The strong driving beat also makes this track another potential car-song, but maybe I’d drive a little slower.
“Cave”– Katie Zaccardi. This dark and brooding track combines Zaccardi’s strong voice with hard-punching lyrics that tell a poignant story about the tug and pull of toxic relationships. The guitar up-stroke even makes an appearance!
“White Noise”– Swells. I am feeling the groovy vibes of this tune. Soulful female vocals get me every time.
“The Wolf”– ALLA. This string-heavy song oozes with eerie. The repetitive lyrics and rhythms make it seem simple, but the string-plucking alone exposes the track’s complexity.
“Help Yourself”– Bryde. Bryde’s powerful, Vanessa Carlton-like voice continues to entrance me. The hard-hitting lyrics and full-bodied instrumentation keep me coming back.
“Bedbugs”– Amaroun. Amaroun’s unique alt-folk sound is akin to brilliant artists like Bjork and Jesca Hoop. You won’t want to miss taking a ride with Amaroun and her “Bedbugs”.
“Love Dust feat. Mercy”– Christopher Pellnat. I am absolutely captivated by this juxtaposition of seductive Lana Del Rey-like vocals and circus-esque instrumentation. It feels uncannily like a 19th century cabaret, with an accordion to boot!
“Speak”– Expert Timing. The sweet female and unadorned male vocals contrast great with the heavy electric guitar and drum kit instrumentation. This is one punk rock track to rock out to.
“The Lost Ones (featuring Leah Hayes)”– The Gifted. Fun, playful, even includes whistling–everything you want an indie-pop song to be. There’s something about the vibrant sound and catchy lyrics that make me feel that this track could be an anthem for a generation.
“What Became of Laura R?”– Heavy Heart. Summoning their inner MGMT, this track begins and ends with a slew of screaming kids. As the song progresses, Heavy Heart’s rock and roll vibes liken to that of the Silversun Pickups– breezy, laid-back rock and roll. –Krisann Janowitz
1. “Half a Second” – Hemmingbirds. I love power-pop tracks that don’t pulverize the vocalist in a crush of guitars, and this tight, snappy tune accomplishes that mixing feat. The melodies are chipper–even giddy–and the whole track calls for me to roll down the windows and turn it up.
2. “Found Towns” – Dave Miller. This instrumental rock track has subtle elements of Fang Island enthusiasm, occasional jazzy asides, and a rollicking sense of sonic adventure.
3. “Pick Up the Robot” – Booher (feat Will Sheff). If Dawes got a lot more rowdy, they might put out ragged, enthusiastic, overdriven work like this. Booher’s and Sheff’s passionate vocal performances are electric here.
4. “Someone Told Me” – Bitterheart. This duo found the midpoint between traditional country and 1950s pop, then updated it with contemporary attitude. It’s an impressive feat.
5. “Busted Heart” – Strangers by Accident. This is a rare tune that’s tender and gentle in both the acoustic-heavy arrangement and the lyrics. The male/female vocal duet is lovely, as well.
6. “Our Love Is a Garden” – Wilder Adkins. A slight, small tune that floats through my ears (in the best of ways). It’s romantic and warm, like Gregory Alan Isakov’s arrangements crossed with Ray LaMontagne’s passion.
7. “Nowhere to Be Found” – Frances Luke Accord. A beautiful, appealing song that seems like it has always existed: it’s the sort of comfortable, easy tune that seems way too perfect and pristine to have been just written now. A remarkable song that shows Accord as one to watch.
“Mine All Mine” is the opening single from Wild Iris‘ self-titled debut full-length, and it makes quite a statement. The folk/country outfit goes for the full hoedown vibe by featuring rolling banjo, sawing fiddle, thumping bass, and hollerin’ female vocals. Kate Mullikin’s punchy, assertive delivery gives the tune an extra oomph that separates it from the rest of the folk/country pack. The enthusiasm of the track is infectious; there’s no way for me to not tap my feet and smile.
Fans of upbeat folk-pop like The Lumineers and Twin Forks will love this, as will fans of more traditional country fare. Some bluegrass fans might sneak in the back door and appreciate it under cover of darkness, too.
Krisp, the indie rock/chillwave quartet hailing from the tropics of Miami, has recently released a soulful, scintillating record. Sonic Monarch’s overall mood mirrors Krisp’s vibrant, native city, exuding ‘80s synth, funky groove, and sunny rock elements.
Bouncy guitar lines and Santana-esque energy launch the record through fuchsia-colored stratosphere on “Franz.” It’s a head-turner of a song; like a short, swishy skirt with a pair of long legs, it demands our focus and then sends us smiling on our way.
This sauciness pairs well with the ensuing silver-studded, indie rock-infused “Black Mamba.” The lyrics describe a couple plagued by disconnection: “She sleeps to the left/I sleep to the right/She’s a shadow of the night/She saw it coming tonight,” which shifted my focus for the remainder of the record from the electrifying instrumentation to the dynamic, deliberate word choices.
While the groovy, disco-heavy instrumentation may set a carefree vibe, the lyrics consistently play a more serious, contemplative role throughout the entire album. On “Outnumber,” the vocalist assures that, “Our past is not a blindness/we are learning,” and admits that he “should have left when we were done/It’s for the best to say goodbye when we’re both having fun…you tell me where you’re from/You never tell me where you come from.” But one of my favorite lyrics is on “Once”: “You never make decisions on your own/When we expect each other to be wrong/When we aren’t, we’ll look the other way/But if we are, it’s all the same.” The lyrics are strong, simple, and blunt.
My favorite track from the record is “Dust,” which commences like an ‘80s cop show intro. “We’re moving on and I won’t tell you where to go/Make your decision tonight/I’m writing everything, everything down/Down with your laws, down with your laws,” the vocalist sings. The disco-synth and groovy basslines transition from creating an upbeat, sparkling feel to an unapologetically blunt and intense mood.
With a crispy heartiness baked in from disco, indie rock, and electro, Sonic Monarch is warm and cinnamon-flavored. The record is spunky, smart, and fresh.–Rachel Haney
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.