Moda Spira‘s self-titled debut album is a beautiful, intriguing work that combines pensive indie-pop, thoughtful electro-pop, R&B and more into a distinctive sound. The lyrics are just as impressive, tackling the little-discussed topic of marital commitment with candor, verve, and impact. The result is a deeply moving album that fires on all cylinders.
Moda Spira is, at core, a piano-led indie-pop album with nods to singer/songwriter lyrical sensibilities. Due to the impressive arrangements that Latifah Phillips and her collaborators develop, the final project is much more than that. It’s a credit to those diverse arrangements that this 12-song album is unusually tight for such a long work; the songs do not become monotonous. There’s a five-song suite in the middle of the album that perfectly shows off how that works.
“Shaking the Walls” is the most immediate of the tunes on the record: it’s the most electronic piece, sounding not that far off from School of Seven Bells material. The layering of multiple synths on top of traditional keyboards matches the complexity of the vocal layering that’s going on by the end of the song. At track five, this thoughtful-yet-fun pop song is a big turning point in the flow of the album. It’s followed by “Bet on Me,” which is probably the track most influenced by R&B: check the restrained guitar, heavily reverbed percussion, and the vocal melodies. It’s a big shift musically from the previous track, but the emotions behind Phillips’ vocals in both tunes carry the listener through.
“The Hard Way” is reminiscent of Jenny and Tyler’s cinematic folk/indie-rock sound, delivering some of the most indelible vocal melodies in an album chock full of them. There’s a little bit of electro sneaking in the arrangement, too, but it’s there to round out the sound instead of take it over. “What You Need” combines the straight piano rhythms of indie-rock/indie-pop with R&B vocals, pad synth arrangements, and strings, combining many of her influences in a sound that’s all Moda Spira’s own. It’s a very quiet, chill song, but not as quiet as “Stillness,” an intimate solo piano musing. In the span of five tunes, Phillips goes from her most noisy to her most serene while displaying a huge breadth of songwriting chops. It’s impressive. There are other impressive tunes (the harp-driven “We Hold On” is particularly rad), but I want to leave some surprises for you.
The lyrics are deeply important here as well. Many of the songs here are about how hard being married is, even if (especially if?) you’re committed to keeping it going through the hard times. (Marriage is also portrayed as incredibly beautiful: see “Shaking the Walls.”) As a husband myself, they resonated clearly and deeply with me. It’s also interesting that these topics are framed in vocal lines that draw from the R&B tradition; the phrases “What You Need” and “Bet on Me” sound like they could be any generic R&B come-on, but in Moda Spira’s wedded context, they have a much richer back story. The lyrics reach into a deep well of emotion and are uniquely strong because of it.
Moda Spira is a brilliant collection of inventive, honest, yearning, passionate tunes about staying together that subverts expectations in an astonishing number of ways. Fans of Imogen Heap, The Antlers, and all the aforementioned artists will find much to love. This is a remarkable album. Highly recommended.
Pllush, a self-proclaimed SOB-rock band, released their latest EP, Please, last month. With subtle vocals, intimate lyrics, and exploding instrumentation, Please is a very solid EP.
The slow, yet powerful instrumentation is my favorite aspect of this five-track EP. Don’t get me wrong, the vocals are wonderful and unassuming, but it’s the pairing of the vocals with the fantastic instrumentation that really makes this EP shine. “Please Don’t Let Me Go” is a great example of how Plush shows off their instrumentation. The use of a harder electric guitar in contrast with a more beachy guitar and a hefty amount of percussion is perfect. There is even this great build towards the end that slowly winds down–and then the song just ends. Similarly, “Sheer Power” starts off slow and mellow with a subtle electric guitar. About mid-way through, the instrumentation just erupts, pairing well with the increasingly charged lyrics.
The lyrics in Please are emotional and intimate, yet somewhat distant. The lyrics off the EP have this push and pull between “I want you” and “I don’t want you.” Interestingly, most of the songs don’t have distinct choruses. When they do, they are often repeated lines like “But please don’t let me go” from “Please Don’t Let Me Go.” I also love how “Sheer Power” ends on the lyric, “I have the sheer power of/ knowing I still haunt you when I’m gone.” It’s such a punchy way to end a song. By ending the EP in “Fixes” with the lyrics, “There’s no fixes left to try,” they end this collection perfectly.
London four-piece Wolf Girl’s first full-length record We Tried is a spunky pop punk album full of short, punchy songs with spunky instrumentation and quirky lyrics.
“Skinned Teen Zine Machine” is the shortest of all the tracks at 1:17; it comes and goes like a bullet train. Beginning with electric guitar and quickly accompanied by drums, the fast pace of the track enables Wolf Girl to put a lot into the song. The instrumentation feels very Ramones–they even throw in a few “ba ba ba ba dah”’s very reminiscent of “I Wanna Be Sedated”–although Wolf Girl’s version has a slightly different rhythm. Wolf Girl also ditched the idea of a chorus, leaving the track with two jam-packed verses. One of my favorite lines is “Cassette culture taught me I ought-ta/ Press record when I’m bored.” Wolf Girl fits fun and pizazz into such a short song.
The longest track off the album, “Sourpuss” (3:34), has a slightly slower pace, while still maintaining Wolf Girl’s signature spunk. “Sourpuss” begins slowly with the electric guitar and picks up pace once the drums enter in, although not quite as fast as “Skinned Teen Zine Machine.” There is also an impressive electric guitar solo and short instrumental interlude, giving this track fewer words than the shortest track.
The lyrics of this track provide a little snapshot of a few kids at a party, describing them “In a backroom at a party, avoiding all the fun.” Then, at the chorus the singer pleads, “Bury me in awkward poetry.” By the end of the song, the kids are “In a bathroom at a party, the countdown’s just begun / Your head in the bowl and you’re puking loudly,” the “party” here of course being that of New Years. The lyrics of We Tried capture awkward young adulthood at its finest.
We Tried does a great job at encapsulating what punk rock is all about– awkward teenage angst.–Krisann Janowitz
Kris Orlowski has come a long way since 2011, when his At theFremont Abbey EP crossed my desk. Often in the Pauseis his second LP of full-band indie rock tunes, and it is his most musically assured and confident work to date.
Opener “Something’s Missing” is a low-slung indie-rock tune with a bunch of reverb (a la The Walkmen) until it explodes satisfyingly into a Bloc Party-meets-Jimmy Eat World rocker. That interplay between the angular, dusky edges of Bloc Party and the mature, hummable pop-rock of Jimmy Eat World forms the basis of the album’s sonic palette–the acoustic guitars and pianos I love so much are thrown in for contrast and color, either within songs (“Walking In My Sleep,” “Stars and Thorns”) or as a whole song breather amid the noisier tunes (“Go,” “Lost,” “We Share the Moon”). Lead single “Walking in My Sleep” develops the noisier sound well, showing off Orlowski’s talent for combining intriguing rhythms and textures with song structures and vocal melodies that are immediately recognizable to indie rock listeners.
“Electric Sheep” expands this dark, brooding palette with a set of lyrics that blurs the line between the androids of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and an emotionally cold human being. Orlowski’s lyrics aren’t all literary references, though; most of them are direct, affecting, and effective, working through the tensions of young adulthood in the 2010s: relationships, politics, career fears, meaning-seeking.
The standout song on the record is unity-seeking political anthem “Stars and Thorns.” Lyrically it strikes just the right balance between patriotism, criticism, and optimism; musically it features a towering chorus that gave me shivers the first time I heard it. Orlowski doesn’t try to holler above guitar-rock din–instead, he lets the stomping arrangement punctuate his enthusiasm. It’s one that I immediately pressed repeat on.
Often in the Pause is a surprisingly diverse, satisfying record of crunchy indie-rock songs, ballads, and even some folk-pop tunes. If you’re looking for a big hook and a melody that’s going to sound great in a huge group (the whoa-ohs of “Stars and Thorns” will sound awesome live), Kris Orlowski should be in your listening habits.
(There were a ton of good songs these last two weeks, so I included a lot more than usual in this post. Here’s to a good problem to have: too many tunes!)
1. “Can You Hear It” – Josiah and the Bonnevilles. A piano-led cross between mid-’00s alt-country (The New Amsterdams, I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning) and contemporary indie-pop whose enthusiasm just jumps out of the speakers.
2. “Mammoth” – Brothers Among Wera. Astonishingly, this is the second song I’ve heard in the last few weeks sung from the perspective of a mammoth at the end of the Ice Age: where Rock, Paper, Cynic’s tune was played for laughs, this one’s a bit more serious in its lyrics. However, the music here is an invigorating blast of folk-pop that has arrangements similar to Of Monsters and Men but tempos more similar to Twin Forks. The horns are just excellent here.
3. “The Man That I’ve Become” – Night Drifting. A blast of sunshine in indie-pop form, this tune has a skittering guitar line, jubilant vocals, and a bass line that bounces all over the place. There’s just enough going to be really interesting without getting hectic.
4. “Time Goes On” – Brothers. Sometimes you don’t have to break ground, you just have to nail the best elements of the formula. Brothers’ tune here is a straightforward folk tune with round acoustic guitar tone in a fingerpicked style, shuffle-snare drumming, root-chord bass with some nice fills, and sing-along vocal melodies. It just does everything I’m looking for in a folk tune (there’s even an organ solo, which isn’t strictly necessary for a folk tune but is greatly appreciated). Keep on keepin’ on, Brothers.
5. “Rose Petals” – Kindatheart. Here’s a fun tune: “Rose Petals” has indie-pop sensibilities (delicate vocal and guitar melodies, feathery background vocals) played at power-pop tempos.
6. “Stray Cats” – Robbing Johnny. There’s more vocal attitude packed into this single infectious acoustic-pop song than into some entire albums; John Murrell has impressive charisma and presence.
7. “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” – Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams. Swampy, immediate, forceful, neo-gothic gospel that raised my eyebrows. It’s recorded immaculately, arranged dramatically (whoa organ), and performed intensely. It’s a workout, and I was only listening to it.
8. “THOUGHTS” – Gabriele Miracle. This unique tune ties the theatricality of flamenco guitar and vocals to a minimalist percussion line and mesmerizing guitar lines. It’s a wild trip.
9. “One Good Night” – Candy Cigarettes. Somewhere in the corners of my mind is a picture of a forlorn individual standing outside a hotel while the camera pans backwards away to show off the bleak desolation of the parking lot, barely-lit swimming pool, and the run-down building. The shot is fuzzy around the edges, a sympathetic reading of the place that’s seen better days. I immediately thought of this image when I heard this slice-of-life, mid-tempo acoustic jam.
10. “I Do” – Meiko. I’m a sucker for an intimate singer/songwriter tune about marital bliss, and Meiko’s latest single pushes all those buttons. The strings are great as well.
11. “Single Mountain Fiddle” – Jared Hard. Hard has a country-style tone to his baritone and a bit of country structure to his vocal melodies, but the folk-style arrangement is clean, uncluttered, and engaging.
12. “Thirteen Years Astray” – Glider Pilots. Speaking of big, empty spaces, Glider Pilots plays the kind of slow-motion alt-country that Mojave 3 was so good at. This song is heartbreaking without going for any of the big moves–it simply is infused with the majestic sense of sadness that seems so fitting.
13. “Washed Away” – Katmaz. The album’s called Nautical Things, and this relaxing, easygoing acoustic tune certainly has a gentle tidal vibe to it: there’s a slow, rolling vibe evoked from the picking pattern and a hazy, fluid mood coming out of the vocals.
14. “Never Heard Nothin’” – Galapaghost. A confident vocal performance of a resigned, sad melody plays on top of an insistent ukulele strum. The tune doesn’t outstay its welcome, leaving me wanting more.
15. “passing” – Dead Skunk. Lo-fi singer/songwriter material that falls somewhere between the hazy mood of Iron & Wine’s early work and the angular guitar work of The Mountain Goats’ early phase. It’s warm and relatable.
16. “Anyhow Anyway Anyday” – Wholewheat. Lo-fi work with casio that evokes the old-school lo-fi masters: there’s a clear song structure, off-kilter pun-making, and a clear vision that includes the tape hiss as a vital part of the tune. Lo-fi fans should jump at this.
17. “We Fell Apart” – Abby Litman. Evocative singer/songwriter work that hangs on subtle, thoughtful lyrical shifts and pleasingly melancholy guitar fingerpicking.
18. “Kissing Faded (feat. Timid Soul)” – Bohkeh. If Amanaguchi tried to write a chillwave song, it might sound like this neon-colored, glitchy-yet-chill electro piece.
19. “twentythousand” – Exes. Slow-jam electro-indie with delicate vocals and a convincing emotional palette. The smart use of vocals throughout is a highlight.
“Nowhere to Be Found,” the first single from Frances Luke Accord‘s most recent album, is about as mature, pristine, and lovely as a folk-pop tune can get; it’s right up there with Josh Ritter and Gregory Alan Isakov. It’s a stunner, then, to find that the rest of Flukeis just as good in a different vein: the airy, major-key mysticism of opener “Who Do You Run From” evokes Shepherd’s Dog and Kiss Each Other Clean-era Iron & Wine. The rest of the album combines the delicate immediacy of the former influences with the expansive arrangements of the latter influence.
“Something Moving” is an appropriate title, as the second song on the record has an arrangement that sounds like running gently through a forest: claps, tambourine, distant auxiliary percussion, woozy strings, and breathy vocals combine to create a warm tune with an unusual groove as its chassis. “Stones I’ve Thrown” and “Egoeye” continue this arrangement style, putting a heavy emphasis on the mood that is created by the many instrumental pieces coming together. “David” starts off as a more direct tune; the band pulls some of the layers back to focus on vocals, lyrics, and saxophone. It doesn’t last long, as Accord expands the simple beginnings into one of the most complex pieces on the record.
Fluke is an engaging, intriguing album that weaves an incredible amount of instruments and sounds together to create a unique mood. The songs can be appreciated on their own, but the album sounds best as a whole, when Frances Luke Accord can tour you through a distinct sonic world. There are many nooks and crannies to explore on Fluke, and you can have a great time finding them all. It’s not a traditional hands-in-the-air summer record, but if you’re in the woods on a lake and take a walk in the next few months, this record would be a great companion.
I love sign language, emotional dance, and “Let’s Be Happy” by Fire Chief Charlie, so this video combines three things I love in an incredible way. Just a gorgeous clip.
OSOG’s clip for “Who Who (feat. The Hazelnuts)” is a post-apocalyptic travelogue that’s heavy on mundane, pedestrian survival attempts and low on zombies. The depiction of the grinding physical difficulty, the emotional toll, and ever-present danger of being two souls on the run creates a compelling watch.
If the ambient intensity of the last clip wore you out, cleanse your emotional palate with Wanderwild’s crisply-shot, peaceful, pastoral nature images.
Many attempts at surrealism suffer from not being near enough to reality to entirely register as off-kilter. Kevin Morby’s clip for “Dorothy” starts off subtly odd, and gets incrementally weirder and weirder as it goes. The great major-key indie-pop/indie-rock tune gives the whole thing a levity that helps it be even more unusual by contrast to the weird imagery.
Bad Bad Hats are poking fun at people here, either themselves or other people. Whichever one it is, this is some of the most bizarre, engaging satire that I’ve seen in a long time.
“Love Run” by Flaunt is a video built around a talented dancer with a hoop. It’s just plain fun to watch.
1. “A Laughing Heart” – Steve Benjamins. I am a sucker for steel drums and horns; Benjamins includes both in this jubilant party of a song. If you were waiting for a song to kick off your summer appropriately, let me suggest this one.
2. “I Confess” – Cody Hudock. Hudock possesses the rare skill of being able to sound dramatic and chill at the same time. His skyscraping vocals bring the theatrics (in the best of ways), while a lazy piano and moseying drummer keep the vibes relaxed. The end ratchets up to a big, satisfying conclusion, but for a while, being suspended between the two moods is quite an experience.
3. “Take Your Time” – Night Drifting. The vocal melodies and the gentle, airy synth inclusion take this slightly fuzzed-out acoustic indie-pop tune to the next level. He’s on a rolling release schedule, so hit up his Bandcamp frequently for more music.
4. “I Hope You Hear This On the Radio” – Will Bennett & The Tells. Bennett and company barely keep all their enthusiasm contained on this folk-rock blaster; and if the band is that excited, how can the listeners not get excited? Great stuff here. I love songs that sound like the drummer is about to take off into space.
5. “Completed Fool” – Hollis Brown. Soul is hot right now, and Hollis Brown has some crunchy, electric-guitar-heavy soul ready for those who are all up on the Nathaniel Rateliff train and want more. Brown and his band have a month-long residency at Berlin in NYC, so if you’re around, you should hit that up.
6. “Take That” – CRUISR. Punchy, grooving electro-pop that sounds like MGMT fused to Vacationer.
7. “Drop Your Sword” – Joy Atlas. The fact that this electro-indie-pop song works is amazing: it’s an abstract, angular sort of thing, full of claps and snaps and keys and high-neck bass notes. It’s held together by Imogen Heap-esque vocals and its own internal logic. It made me press repeat just to try to figure out what happened.
8. “Talk About Us” – The TVC ft. Jayme Dee, Connor Foley. The lyrics and the huge, rubbery bass synth give off a hugely ’80s vibe, but in a pleasant way. I feel like I’ve been transported to the montage sequence of a dramatic ’80s teen movie, the part where things have gone south but the protagonists are collecting themselves and gearing up for the final confrontation. tl;dr raaaaaaaaaad.
9. “The Fear” – Amaroun. Amaroun’s engaging vocals power this churning indie-pop/R&B tune.
10. “Elizabeth” – Stephen Hunley. Some serious adult alternative vibes going on here, augmented with some bluesy cred in the arrangement (check that wurly).
1. “Firefly” – Brave Bones. The vocal enthusiasm of folk-punk bands bolted onto the hypercharged alt-country of The Old ’97s? Sign me up.
2. “The Pilot and the Flying Machine: Part Two” – Ben Bedford. The hardest thing about being a blogger is the X factor. What makes a song good? Sometimes you can break it down to a guitar line, a vocal line, an auxiliary instrument, the lyrics, or the overall mood. Sometimes we throw a RIYL band at it to help you figure out whose X factor this band’s is most like. But not this time. Bedford brings it all together here for an excellent acoustic tune that stands on its own, no comparison artists needed.
3. “Whispers of the Night” – Rowan McGuire. The intricate, delayed guitarwork here is totally mesmerizing.
4. “Thunder Road” – Adam Hanna and The Class of ’18. I’m of the opinion that doing any cover well is hard, and covering iconic tunes is exponentially harder. Hanna successfully reinterprets the Boss in an acoustic vein by delivering a solid vocal performance and choosing good instrumentalists. He doesn’t try to thoroughly reinvent it (a smart move), and the results are good.
5. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – Freedom Fry. This band chooses the “completely reinvent” method of covering an iconic song, turning the monumental grunge tune into a major-key indie-pop jaunt with reggae rhythms. You have never heard “Teen Spirit” like this before. Mad props.
7. “Inside Your Heart” – The Two Romans. Or if you’re not down for tropical vibes, maybe you can go for ecstatic hoedown folk, Twin Forks-style. This is the sort of song that makes you why we liked this type of song in the first place, before a lot of people got all folk’ed out.
8. “Hattie Barlow” – Jack Hotel. If you drew a triangle with bluegrass, old timey music, and modern folk-pop at the corners, you’d find Jack Hotel in the middle. Those who like their folk with lots of fiddle sawing, banjo rolling, and acoustic strumming will be into this. Alternately, if “holler” is a positive term to you, also apply within.
9. “Fiery Eyes” – Prinz Grizzley. “Prinz Grizzley” is a name for a TV show host, a rapper, or a country singer–we got the last one. The horns in this song bring a memorably bouncy enthusiasm to this mid-tempo alt-country jaunt.
10. “White Lies” – Darryl Rahn. Sometimes I want to write “It’s just really good” and leave it at that, but I suppose you want me to tell you that the vocals sound like Brett Dennen reappropriated into a sped-up Rocky Votolato song. Or you could go with “It’s just really good.” Either way.
11. “Wounded Wing” – The Duke Spirit. This ballad-esque song seems like it was written for maximum gravitas: heavy piano, distant atmospherics, solemn alto vocals, and a Mark Lanegan guest spot. Rad.
12. “I’m Not This Layer of Skin” – Yvonne McDonnell. It successfully combines ancient and modern: A brash vocal style with traces of traditional British folk tone leads this emotionally engaging fingerpicked folk tune that features melodies equally reminiscent of the UK’s traditions.
13. “Leave” – Sea Offs. A tone poem of a song, floating beautifully off in the distance, making me carefully reconsider my surroundings, like the most freeflowing moments of Bowerbirds.
If you’re a little nervous at this point, don’t be: even though “Love Song for Anita” starts out with gigantic choral harmonies, there’s a section around 5:30 in to the piece where Felix takes it down all the way to a plunking piano and glockenspiel. It sounds like a Lullatone piece, which is remarkably cool on its own and even cooler in contrast to the traditional orchestral structure around it. Felix may not be fronting an indie rock band here, but he can’t resist turning a whole orchestra into an indie rock outfit temporarily.
He does the same thing on “Harmonious Harlot,” where a syncopated piano and vocal line intertwine to create an ominous, wiry vibe that sounds strikingly like something you might expect to come out of a Bloc Party album. It gets even more exciting once the vocals split into multiple lines, punctuated by huge horn blasts and interwoven with harp. All this to say, don’t be afraid of this album because it’s a choral symphony. There’s a lot to be thrilled about if you’re a person whose classical music influences don’t extend farther than (or as far as) Sufjan or Joanna Newsom’s explorations.
The charms continue throughout: the beautiful cello/oboe combo in “Mistress of Mistrust” must be noted, along with the remarkable cello solo that starts out “The Sword and the Throne.” The piano-heavy “Phantasmagoria” is a peaceful respite among the highly dramatic work. The harp, which appears throughout, gets its moment in the memorable interlude “Dreamsicle.” There are some more thoroughly orchestral moments (the stomping “Dungeon of Versailles” sounds fully like what you might imagine from a giant orchestra), but in general, this is an orchestra that sounds like it was written by someone who’s up with the current trends.
Neon Heavenis not your usual listening, almost certainly. But in its 40 minutes, Neon Heaven holds many distinct charms, beautiful moments, and memorable sections. If you’re an adventurous listener, you should definitely check out Neon Heaven whenever you can. If you’re in Austin, there will be a listening party for the record at the Museum of Human Achievement on Saturday at 8 p.m., and I encourage you to go.
Printers’s Son by Kalispell adheres to the Gregory Alan Isakov school of folk: direct, serious, modern. Kalispell’s hook is the immediate production; where Isakov likes ghostly reverb and delay, Shane Leonard presents his instruments and voice mostly unadorned.
This choice results in crisp, tight, uncluttered, and clear arrangements throughout. But the album isn’t stark: Leonard cares deeply about arrangements, including wind instruments, strings, and a full band to create wide-open panoramas of sound. (Song titles “In Chicago” and “Gary, IN” give clues to the landscapes he’s sonically describing.) These songs aren’t particularly designed to be catchy, but there are melodic thrills to be had throughout: “Beautiful Doll” features a cascading banjo melody, while “Hand” opens with a memorable acoustic guitar line and keening strings. The title track has a song structure and emotional vibe that are more attuned to singing along.
Still, the joy of this record is not audience participation, but marveling at the serene, intricate work that Leonard has put together. It’s more along the lines of S. Carey than Bon Iver in that regard, although fans of either musician will find much to love in Printer’s Son. The album drops on June 3; you can pre-order it now.
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.