Quinn Erwin first came to my attention as a big part of Afterlife Parade, a top-shelf outfit equally comfortable making can’t-ignore-it pop-rock and textured post-rock. Erwin’s Soul EP builds on the pop-rock side of Afterlife Parade, getting crunchier and catchier simultaneously. [Editor’s note: This EP was later re-released as part of the album Initiation, which is what is currently embedded in this post.]
The titular track of Soul kicks off the four-song effort with hammering piano, crunchy guitar, handclaps, and Erwin wordlessly throwing his voice around in some great melodies. There’s a pop-rock chassis to the tune, but from the wheels up it’s all muscly soul attitude and yearning blues vocals. There’s a bit of dance-rock thrown in for spice at the end, but this is primarily an earthy, Southern (but not Southern rock) jam. “Heritage” builds on that earthy pop-rock blend, fusing a stomping backbeat to a scuzzed-out guitar line with some zinging synth on top of it. Erwin’s repeated plea (“Don’t let this be my heritage”) and anguished “la”s give the tune some extra punch (as if it needed any). Both of these tunes have a crunch that wasn’t often there in Afterlife Parade, but don’t sacrifice any of the melodic prowess. If anything, these are even catchier tunes.
“Reality” and “Soul (acoustic)” pull back from the unique vibe of the first two tracks and push the sound in different ways. The straightforward pop-rock of “Reality” does have thrumming bass and insistent snare, but the vibe here is less Southern attitude and more U2-style pop expansion. (You can hear Bono in the wordless, nearly a capella bridge, for sure.)
The acoustic version of “Soul” pulls the excellent arrangements out of the mix and shows that with or without a backing band, “Soul” is a torrential song. Just because there’s only an acoustic guitar accompanying Erwin doesn’t mean he sacrifices any of the attitude or intensity of the tune. The song reveals just how impressive a vocalist Erwin is by putting the focus squarely on his vocal performance.
Soul is one in a series of EPs Erwin is releasing, so we’re going to be treated to more work from him in the near future. And the work is a treat; Erwin’s clear vision for fusing his pop-rock background with other sounds creates distinctive, exciting work. Soul establishes (for some) and continues (for others) the need to carefully follow everything that Erwin is up to.
Soul drops tomorrow, April 29. If you’re in the South, you’ll have some chances to catch him soon on the #OYOUGOTSOUL Spring Tour:
04.29: Biloxi, MS
04.30: Mobile, AL
05.06: Baton Rouge, LA
06.10: Birmingham, AL
The Bitter Poet’s “Guy’s Gotta Breathe” is a manic, almost unhinged anti-folk stream of consciousness anchored by literate, specific lyrics and Kevin Draine’s engaging vocal performance.
Over a charging electric guitar line, Draine laments in rapid-fire style relationships current and past, potential apartment hauntings, old laundry, Simon & Schuster, the way coffee tastes three hours after it’s made, never being able to go back to your favorite restaurant, and various other slights (great and small). It is a whirlwind 2:46. His voice moves from a grumble to a howl throughout the song, keeping the listener close with his tenor’s ratcheting tension. The tension finally explodes at the end of the tune, providing a fitting end to the wild ride.
If you’re into The Mountain Goats’ lyrics (or their unhinged moments, like “Psalm 40:2”), you may find The Bitter Poet to be incredibly appealing. In the way of all unique things, the song does takes a moment to adjust to–Draine does not mind dropping you in en media res to his take on things. After you settle in, it’s really impressive and calls for multiple listens.
“Guy’s Gotta Breathe” comes from the upcoming Trail of Glitter, which drops May 6. You can check out tour dates and more info on where to buy the record at The Bitter Poet’s website. If you’re in NYC, you can also check out NYSolo6, the monthly singer/songwriter showcase that he runs.
Jon Solo‘s Ornithology is the chill EP everyone wants to make but not everyone has the skill to pull off. Solo’s comforting voice, gentle arrangements, and careful album construction take the listener on a relaxing journey that is interesting in every track. “Audubon” is the centerpiece of the work, giving a tender retelling of the famed naturalist’s life. Surrounding it are four full tunes plus an intro and an outro that excellently frame the album. “I Don’t Know Why” and “She’s My Rome” are standouts in addition to “Audubon,” the sort of tunes that stick with you afterwards.
Solo uses all the standard tools of delicate folk-pop-indie music (guitar, piano, subtle accompanying instruments), but employs them all with a clarity and confidence that make the tunes pop instead of turn to heard-it-all-before mush. Ornithology is a “walking around Los Angeles with my hands in my pockets” record: one that invites you to wander around and see an extra shine that the music gives to things. It’s a beautiful collection that is very worth your time.
Ark Royal‘s self-titled EP takes a different folk tack: where Jon Solo plays gentle, urban, modern folk, Ark Royal draws from energetic, pastoral, traditional roots.
These Londoners are full of thumping percussion, multipart harmonies, and the sounds of the British Isles: “Delivered” has some early ’00s Brit-pop baked into its soaring arrangement, while “Fork End Road” sounds like Proto-Mumford (I say this approvingly) in its picking pattern, brash vocal style, and vocal melodies. “Penny” is for all the world an Irish ballad (although it appears they wrote this one themselves), while “Humble River” includes rhythmic clapping evocative of Irish and Scottish tunes in the midst of a modern, mid-tempo, piano-led ballad. Whether slow or fast, the tunes are full of life. If you’re into folk music from the UK and parts thereabout, you’ll have a great time listening to Ark Royal.
RÜFÜS DU SOL, the Aussie nu-disco group that’s been showing up on major festival lineups this year, has good reason to be blowing up the way they have. Their latest album, Bloom, is electronica with an actual pulse; it combines catchy synth with heartfelt mood, so listeners receive the total package, a fire and ice combo. I don’t think the overall theme of the album is as important as the impressive fact that every. single. track. can stand strong on its own.
“Brighter” starts off with the recording of a rainstorm, dreamy vocals, slightly depressing lyrics, and musical-esque fingersnaps. The immediate mood is soaking wet, like the song weighs an extra few pounds. But the vibe dries itself off and sheds the excess weight via an infectious tropical house beat spritzed with retro-sounding laser zapping.
This sunny vibe toasts the rest of the record. It sways right into “Like An Animal,” which has more a house-y beat–an occurrence that comes in waves throughout the album. The bass is heavy and emotive, matching the message of the song: “Like an animal, I’ve still got love for you/And I’m coming, I’m coming home for you.” Other tracks that exhibit similar club banger qualities include my personal favorite, “You Were Right,” which carries with it sultry synth and an overall sexy, pleading, retro vibe. And though “Tell Me” is ready for summer radio play, I can see many a remix heading its way.
Airy tracks on the record include the popular, melancholic “Say A Prayer For Me” and “Hypnotised,” which has gorgeous female vocals, sleigh bells, and more pensive instrumentation. This one gives us a nice rip tide effect below the rest of the very build-climax-crash waviness throughout the rest of the record.
Another cut that caused a repeat play was “Be With You,” which starts with a choir-like echo that almost gives it a hip-hop vibe at first. The vocals are warm and groovy. The song is like one giant, sonic kaleidoscope. With recordings of people partying in the background, this is the track that everyone will get down to.
Bloom makes a graceful exit with “Innerbloom,” a heroic nine-minute track that feels more like a nine-minute meditation session in the middle of a drunken night; it’s happy, warm, and peaceful. With each song worthy of praise, this isn’t necessarily about an overall message; it’s like RUFUS’s mindset was, “Let’s make each track a fucking hit,” aka, the perfect electronic album to whisk you away into summertime.–Rachel Haney
Wilder Adkins‘ Hope and Sorrow is a beautiful record. The Birmingham-by-way-of-metro-Atlanta singer/songwriter has created an impeccable, gorgeous modern folk record that shows off the value of maturity. It’s the sort of record that stretches the limits of my writing ability, making me want to write simply: “Just go listen to this record. You won’t regret it.”
Adkins has been plying the folk trade for a long time; his discography stretches back to 2009. As a result, Hope and Sorrow is a record that avoids the pitfalls of young artists’ work. Adkins is a patient songwriter, knowing exactly when to include a new instrument, bulk up an arrangement, deliver a word, or hold his silence. The tunes here are measured, careful, and well-edited. Instead of making them boring (as our culture of now might assume), this makes them riveting. There is nothing wasted here: no songs are throwaway, no performance is wallpaper, no lyrics should have been left on the cutting-room floor. To repeat: this album is riveting.
Adkins’ skill is in the delicate, tender folk tune; he expertly lays down gentle fingerpicking with arrangements that don’t drag down the lightness of the foundation notes. His voice is perfectly suited to this work: he has a lithe, evocative tenor that is confident without being brash. It’s not whisperfolk; Adkins can sing. But it’s beautifully suited, melodically and volume-wise, to the songs surrounding it. You can see his vocal deftness in the one-two punch of “Mecca” and “When I’m Married.” The first is a thoughtful, reverent religious discussion, and the second is a beautiful, realistic love song; both vocal performances underscore the lyrics and the mood of the song.
Those twin lyrical themes of romance and religion appear throughout the record; the balance between the two topics keeps the record moving along just as well as the engaging songwiting does. The aforementioned tunes are the highlight on both fronts. “Our Love is a Garden,” “Gentle Woman,” and “Cherry Blossoms” are also beautiful love songs; the title track and “Wrestle” hold down the other front well. But those two topics aren’t the only things on the record, as Hope and Sorrow is a full 12 tracks. It’s a testament to Adkins’ expertise that this record never feels weighty or bulky–it’s long, but it’s the best sort of long. I wanted it to be this long.
Hope and Sorrow is a remarkable record; it’s the sort of record that I keep coming back to over and over. It perfectly blends songwriting, arrangement, lyrics, and vocal performances into a can’t-miss release. This is definitely one of the best albums of the year so far, and one that anyone who loves folk music (Barr Brothers, Josh Garrels, Gregory Alan Isakov, and Iron & Wine, especially) should seek out right now.
Classical music has a long history of being intense; The Rite of Spring nearly caused a riot on its debut. But “intense,” “aggressive,” and “forceful” are probably not words many people think of when thinking of music for strings today. Enter Nonsemble, a chamber orchestra from Australia. Their Spaceship Earth EP wrecks expectations left and right, from their inclusion of kit drums to their revolving cast of vocalists to their powerful arrangements.
“Bricks” moves from an oddly syncopated piano line supported by kit drums to a roaring high point with dramatic strings and Shem Allen belting out “Monsters!” at the top of his lungs. “Trucksea” also gets pretty wild at its conclusion. “Sovereign Murders” (not your grandpa’s classical music titles here) includes speedy violin bowing and abstract, almost math-rock patterns for the rest of the strings. When a hip-hop kit beat comes in, the song is something completely other: Nonsemble has transcended the labels of chamber orchestra and indie-rock altogether.
Even when Nonsemble chooses to conform to the traditional understanding of chamber-pop with rapidfire pizzicato notes and delicate melodies (“Sonambulists”), they do with such fervor and panache that it doesn’t feel like anything else happening. If you’re into strings, adventurous listening, or Joanna Newsom-style re-imagining of what indie-rock means, Spaceship Earth should be on your radar.
X and the Ys is a fluid concept with two poles: “X writes everything but has played with the same backing band for years and is giving them some love” on one end and “this is really one band that writes all the songs together from the ground up” on the other. Every X and the Ys is constantly in the process of moving toward one pole and away from the other. Jonas Friddle and the Majority is moving closer to the “one band” concept, which is probably partly why their latest record is a self-titled one. As a result of this full-band focus, Jonas Friddle and the Majority is a big record, full of horns, strings, vocalists, and fun.
Another tip-off that The Majority had a much bigger role on this record than in Friddle’s previous work: they re-record two of Friddle’s tunes from the last double-album. “Belle de Louisville” and “String to a Bell” include much more of the band, letting Friddle’s banjo songwriting become the foundation instead of the focus. “String to a Bell” does this slowly, bringing in parts incrementally before opening up into a horns/strings/bass/drums jam (completely with a Mountain Goats-esque “whoo!” from Friddle). The results sound like a more jovial version of The Collection. “Belle de Lousville” integrates the band more thoroughly into a dense, unified arrangement throughout (although Friddle can’t resist a big “whoa!” here either–gosh, it must be fun watching this show live).
Elsewhere The Majority pulls back from Friddle’s role as “troubadour with some people backing him” and embraces the idea of a full-band outfit. The rhythmic “Hook and Harness” sounds like a slightly more country-rock version of a Illinois-era Sufjan track. “Music Wherever I Go” and single “Sugar Moon” are giddy pop-folk-country tunes that also have some Sufjan-esque wide-eyed wonder running through them. (“Sugar Moon” has a charming percussion joke in it.) “Live in This World” sounds like The Majority wandered onto the set of a Western and was asked to make a brass-heavy Buddy Cop Sitcom theme song for it. (No apologies for that explanation.) Right when you get used to their giddy fusions, “And Your Bird Can Sing” is just a country song. Sort of. I can say for sure that “Corina’s Lullaby” is a tender lullaby.
All throughout Jonas Friddle and the Majority, horns, strings, backing vocalists, percussion, and probably the kitchen sink are melded together into jubilant, exciting songs. It’s very different than Friddle’s previous work, so those expecting more of his troubadour work should be warned that this is a full band now, and they do full band things. If you’re on board for a wild, fun ride, then you shouldn’t have any concerns or worries as The Majority pulls through the curves and loops of its rollercoaster.
Swedish artist Andreas Stellan has released his first album as Parasite Child. The self-titled album echoes UK synth-pop mixed with a moody rock flavor. Heavy on the keyboard and synthesizer, Parasite Child gives off an air of ‘80s pop music, yet with a darker edge. With crisp vocals and brooding instrumentation, Parasite Child veers off the Kesha pop train and gives us something different.
Andreas Stellan’s voice is very clear, making it easy to hear the lyrics. Many of the tracks (“Crazy,” “Ocean,” “Memories,” “Guadeloop,” “Interview,” “Give In”) include a cluster of slightly muddied female background vocals that contrast smashingly with Stellans’ voice. Parasite Child uses the sopranic female vocals to add another layer to their tracks. In “Guadeloop,” the female vocals don’t enter until two thirds of the way through the song. The track already had organ-like synth sounds and Stellan wooing a lover with desire-fueled lyrics, so the addition of the female vocals works as a call and response that plays out beautifully.
The playful instrumentation of Parasite Child echoes ‘80s synth pop music, similar to Stars. Parasite Child utilizes keys and synthesizer to anchor many of their songs. Layers of electric guitar and strong bass lines add heaviness to the tracks. Take “Secrets,” for example: the track begins with a funky keyboard beat and lyrics that drip of longing. At the chorus, the electric guitar, drums and synthesizer explode the song to a brooding, cinematic level.
Parasite Child’s self-titled debut is is a dynamic album that would be a great score for an indie film. Here a few songs to whet your appetite. —Krisann Janowitz
Chamber pop gets thrown around a bit as an impressionistic term that vaguely means (to the best of my understanding) dignified, serious songcraft, often with strings and piano. (I could be wrong.) The six tunes of Roan Yellowthorn‘s self-titled EP very much adheres to this particular understanding of songwriting, except that it actual sounds like she has a chamber quartet backing her up in places. Opener “Lie With Me” has distinctive melodic and rhythmic elements in the string arrangements that are much more common to classical than pop songwriting. This unexpected element gives her work a surprising quality. (The great “So Fast” reiterates this sort of mood.)
She contrasts this chamber understanding of songwriting with leading piano, thumping drums, pad synths, and a bright, immediately magnetic voice. The arrangement somehow meshes perfectly with the chamber elements, creating a unique sound that’s somewhat like Regina Spektor in an orchestra hall. But it’s Yellowthorn’s voice that makes this album a can’t-miss. Her confident alto has a unique personality and sonic profile that is the rarest of things to hear in a pop singer. Once you’ve heard her once, you’ll know her again–and that’s rare.
Each of the songs here are memorable, but “Thirty Years” is the standout: a piano and voice tune that tells a tragic story with a surprising ending. Yellowthorn relates the story of two characters with grace, poise, and careful attention to the nature of the story and the people in it. It’s a fitting ending to a EP that establishes a fresh new voice in indie-pop. Recommended.
Ryan Downey‘s Me and Heris an a capella mini-LP that doesn’t sound like a joke, a fad, or a bad idea. That alone should be enough to get you to check it out, but there are charms beyond the great execution of a concept: Downey’s baritone voice is smooth and lithe, and the songs he chooses are clever and interesting. Downey’s voice is necessarily the centerpiece of the record, and his voice has enough character and experience in it to keep things fresh throughout the seven songs. The only backdrop to his voice is often his multi-tracked voice, snapping, (“Tidings”), stomping and clapping (“Only Time”), and a female voice (“On a Good Day”). Yet he keeps the arrangements varied and fresh, never letting things stagnate.
The choice of songs helps with the variety: instead of writing seven songs, he re-interpreted two previous tunes and picked five covers. You’ve probably heard Enya’s “Only Time” and Joanna Newsom’s “On a Good Day,” but you may not be as familiar with Tiny Ruins’ “Chainmail Maker” and the McGarrigle Sisters’ “Cool River.” The variety encapsulated in those four tunes alone is incredible. If you’re an adventurous sort and want to hear something unusual, check out the vastly interesting Me and Her by Ryan Downey.
1. “Audubon” – Jon Solo. Here’s a gentle yet expansive sonic soundscape dedicated to the famous naturalist. The arrangement here is simple-sounding yet complex in its construction, which makes for great work.
2. “Taller” – Silas William Alexander. An intimate folk tune that has the gravitas of the best folk singers, an earnest vocal performance that reminds me of my long-lost Page France, and a wistful sweetness that’s irresistible. Alexander is one to watch.
3. “Young Romance” – Redvers Bailey. Makes me think of Juno, The Life Aquatic, Beirut, Belle and Sebastian, honest quirkiness (“I don’t try to do this, this is just how I sing”), and lots of good songs. Mile-a-minute lyrics, chunky chords, humble melodies–what more can you ask for in an indie-pop tune?
4. “Going Home” – Jesse Rowlands. We don’t write real folk tunes that much anymore, but here’s one about a Southern deserter (I’m guessing from the Civil War) who tries to get back to his home. The voice-and-guitar songwriting sounds way more full than just those two pieces. It’s an engaging, beautiful tune.
5. “Little Moment” – Luke Rathborne. Delicate guitar work always gets me; so does the confidence to create small, quiet pop songs. This tune just makes me smile.
6. “Someone to Love Me” – Jont and the Infinite Possibility. Do you miss early-eras Coldplay? Rush of Blood to the Head, Parachutes, etc.? You’ll love the full-band, wide-screen, acoustic-grounded pop-rock here.
7. “Strangers” – Brad Fillatre. The vocal performances in this alt-country tune are deeply affecting, all the more so because of the unexpected nature of the clear, yearning chorus melody in relation to Fillatre’s gritty, rough verse performances.
8. “Hymns” – Grado. A subtle but strong opening guitar line leads into a unique combination of rainy-day indie-pop, modern folk music, and upbeat indie-pop enthusiasm. There’s quite a lot going on here in what seems like a simple, confident tune.
9. “Gentle Giant” – Yankee & the Foreigners. Charming, woodsy, full-band folk for fans of Fleet Foxes, The Fox and the Bird, new-school Decemberists, and Beirut’s vocalist.
10. “Anchor Up” – Eric George. Walking-speed folk troubadour work with great vocals, a stellar production job, and a remarkably chill vibe.
11. “Anchor (Argentum Remix)” – Novo Amor. A For Emma-style Bon Iver vocal performance over fingerpicked guitar and piano chords gets an ’90s techno beat backdrop; to my surprise, it sounds totally rad.
12. “Believe in Me” – Jason P. Krug. A tender keys line (maybe kalimba?) and a swooning cello accompany Krug’s smooth voice and lyrics of Eastern mysticism; reminds me of the quieter Dan Mangan songs, in that there’s a lot of emotion but not a lot of melodrama.
13. “Fire Engine Red” – Robert Francis. Francis sounds completely assured and at home in this minimalist songwriting environment: with a few rim clicks, distant synths, and a rubbery bass line, Francis creates a distinct, careful mood. It gets even better when he layers his acoustic guitar over it.
14. “The Haunted Song” – Maiah Wynne. Wynne wrote a solo vocal piece, then performed it in a big empty space accompanied by claps, stomps, and creepy background vocals. At just over 1:19, it’s intriguing and unconventional.
15. “Fork End Road” – Ark Royal. Big harmonies, swift picking, and great strings–this song hits you with a lot right up front. Gotta love a track that captures you from the get-go. Things get better from there, too.
1. “Crickets” – Some Army. Some Army sounds seamless here, as if every instrument were playing together as one. That’s a credit to their mature, strong indie-rock songwriting, excellent arranging, and immaculate production. Quite a track here.
2. “Flashback” – Astral Cloud Ashes. If you’re into MeWithoutYou, you’ll have a strong connection with ACA’s approach here: speak/sing vocals over a moody, brooding indie-rock backdrop.
3. “Ticks” – Vienna Ditto. This wildly inventive track requires some oddball words to be strung together, but here goes: sassy ’50s girl pop meets Spaghetti Westerns outside an arcade inside a dark carnival. Sometimes it is like dancing about architecture.
4. “The Joke” – Islands. A thrumming, inviting electro beat meshes with a claustrophobic mood and somehow keeps the song from going full dance-rock; big Bloc Party vibes abound.
5. “Johnny” – Basement Revolver. It takes a lot to get me interested in a mid-tempo garage rock song, because there are so many in the world. Basement Revolver’s perfectly-turned vocals, well-done guitars, and excellent build-ups result in a song that balances vulnerability and confidence neatly.
6. “Woman” – Dear Life,. Quirky, crunchy indie-rock with a multitude of influences that create interesting moments when I least expect them.
7. “Real” – Grace Joyner. Joyner’s lilting voice and engaging chorus hooks suck me in, and the bass/synths arrangement keep me swaying along to the rest of it.
8. “Young Green Eyes” – Leaone. This feels like a male-fronted version of a lost Adele song in its dramatic sweep, use of vocals, and general expansiveness. Could be poised for a big breakthrough.
9. “Even If” – Jesse Owen Astin. So it’s sort of a ballad, but there’s an electro-pop edge in Astin’s vocals that keeps this a little more raw than a ballad would otherwise be.
10. “I’m a Sea Creature” – Color Majesty. Space Age Bachelor Pad music meets some Pogo-esque glitchy vocals to result in another really smooth track. [Editor’s note: This song is no longer available. =( ]
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.