1. “If I Were You” – Chris Hurn. This enthusiastic, bouncy indie-pop song is just awesome: the whistling, the glockenspiel, the punchy drums, the intriguing vocal melodies, the Beach Boys references, it’s all just great. If you’re into chipper indie-pop, you need to check this out. Also you could watch the Wes Anderson-style music video, which is similarly charming.
2. “Seventeen” – Cody Crump. This formal pop songcraft owes debts to Simon and Garfunkel, Josh Radin, and more of the ilk. It’s calm, patient, and yet just as committed to a strong melody as more brash tunes.
3. “A Man in a Red Suit” – Tyler Bernhardt. This is a subtle, warm, even sweet acoustic-pop song that is as much about young love as it is Christmas–but not in a creepy way. It balances all the lyrical and musical elements perfectly.
4. “Friday Night Epitaph” – Cyclope Espion. The vocal melodies, song structure, and even fingerpicking patterns feel like pop-punk–but slowed down into indie-pop speeds. It creates a unique, intriguing vibe.
5. “Just Another Day” – Cody Crump. Here’s another side of Crump, throwing down an appealing eletro-rock vibe with some seriously overdriven guitars in the chorus. Makes me think of Digital Ash-era Bright Eyes, as well as the Killers.
6. “Break Out” – Rainbrother. This may have started its life out as an acoustic folk song, but by this version it has become so super-charged with surging bass, insistent drums, and rat-a-tat vocal delivery that it is basically an indie-rock song. It’s immediate, urgent, and compelling.
7. “Love Stuck” – Mother Mother. The staccato vocal rhythms and vocal attitude of the chorus caught my ear immediately, lifting this dance-rock/electro tune above the fray.
8. “Do Do Do” – Dansu. It’s hard to do neo-disco when Daft Punk has so thoroughly dominated the genre, but there’s an indie-pop warmth to the arrangement and an intimacy to the vocals that sets this track apart.
9. “I’ll Never Be” – Σtella. This one’s a hypnotic, loping electro-pop track with live instruments and stellar vocals.
10. “Stranger ft. Elliphant” – Peking Duk. The pop-oriented EDM is fun here, but the real gem is the music video, which is the adventures of two dogs that accidentally get high at a Peking Duk show. It’s a unique take on a music video, for sure.
1. “These Bells Will Ring” – Bitter’s Kiss (feat. Blue Stone). It’s ostensibly a Christmas song, but the melody has an anthemic power that transcends the holiday. In this time of division throughout the world, a well-written and well-arranged plea for peace and unity is deeply appreciated. Mad props.
2. “Alibi” – Rich Stevenson. Enthusiastic, even jubilant, major-key folk with flashes of The Tallest Man on Earth, Guster, and more coming together for an infectious mood and sound.
3. “Minute Steak” – Trookers. Pretty sure no one’s ever titled a song “Minute Steak” before. Shades of Frightened Rabbit and Elbow color this precise-yet-full-throated indie/folk mashup.
4. “Came Down From the Mountain” – Matt Townsend. A full, thick folk arrangement provides the backdrop for Townsend’s high vocals, which swoop and sing with confidence. The vibe is “let’s sit around the fireplace while snow falls outside.”
5. “Hold Me” – Tors. Soaring falsetto, tight harmonies, intimate production, and delicate guitar work–what else are you looking for?
6. “Walk Away” – Lowlight Gathering. Anyone who starts out with a cappella harmonies has a lot of confidence in their vocal chops. And it pays off, as this dreamy, fluid folk song is focused on the big, thick harmonies.
7. “T.B.D.” – Hanging Valleys. This acoustic-fronted indie song is deeply moving. It sounds almost as if Bon Iver got anthemic, or if the Fleet Foxes got a bit more electronic/atmospheric. Either way, it’s lovely.
8. “Where Is Your Heart?” – The Fair Wells. High-drama folk that combines the romanticism of male/female duo folk with the emotional punch of old-timey banjo picking. It’s that happy sort of sadness. (In other words, the “sad/beautiful music” Batman signal is on.)
9. “Hold On” – Little Quirks. An all-female alt-folk trio that’s heavy on thumping percussion, pounding piano, and powerful vocals.
10. “Doing Something Right” – TAMMY. Walking-speed vintage country, complete with lazy harmonies, thrumming stand-up bass, and slo-mo drums. TAMMY’s voice is lithe, smooth, and fits perfectly.
With an honours degree in classical guitar, it is not difficult to hear the talent of Sydney, Australia’s Cameron James Henderson. “This definitely influences my composition,” he says. Influenced by the obvious–Bob Dylan and Tom Waits–it is refreshing to hear echoes of Jim Campilongo, Blake Mills, Ry Cooder, and Marc Ribot coming from his guitar. There is also a vibe that comes from down under. “Definitely John Butler and Ash Grunwald were guys I looked up to heaps during high school. Saw both of them a bunch of times etc and played their songs,” says Henderson.
The twelve-song Storm Rollin’ Inis a treat for blues-folk fans worldwide. The laid back shuffle of opener “Storm Blues” feels like the salt air and beaches of Sydney. Simple, elegant storytelling follows with “Across the Water,” whose guitar work shines. “Lifeboat” features satisfying slide guitar work, while classic guitar riffs blend Stevie Ray Vaughn and John Butler Trio beautifully. The metaphor-filled “Refugee” is a bit of brilliance. Channeling Bob Dylan in vocal style, the song is a powerful testament to humanity’s weaknesses. The mix is stellar, allowing the song to breathe out the message freely.
“No One’s Here/Cares” has a Ray Wylie Hubbard vibe, throwing down a groove that rocks. Sprinkled with harmonica and songwriting nimbly mirroring songwriter Chris Gillespie (AU), this song is an incredibly fun romp. Sequencing on this album works together to create an experience; without “Stand Amazed” (the intro), “Floating” would lose the power of imagery. Stark and haunting acoustic guitarwork slides into the song gracefully. Vocals are layered in with classical guitar composition–simply beautiful musically and lyrically. “Wisest Man” is a shout in the dark, back in the folk singer-songwriter style with an essence of The Milk Carton Kids.
Things shift adeptly to “Old Man Stomp,” then abruptly jump to “Shelter,” as if one could not be there without the other. B.B. King makes his voice heard, here. There is a familiarity with the easy rolling songwriting, hearkening back to the beginning tracks of Storm Rollin’ In. “She’s Not There” brings in what sounds to be the ocean, a continuous pull of life that gives a fluid foundation to the pain of love. “Don’t Go Drifting” closes out the album in style. Soaring, J.J. Cale-style electric guitar and vocal phrasing give an extra punch to the message of the song. This follow-up to Cameron James Henderson’s 2014 debut album is a step up in songwriting dexterity and composition, showing a new depth in vocal delivery. Get yours at www.cameronjameshenderson.com/. —Lisa Whealy
My favorite underutilized instrument is the harmonium, a small box that produces a gloriously warm, organ-like sound but without the sharpness. I also have loved the banjo for many years. So when Jordan O’Jordan came my way with Through Tough Thoughts boasting nothing but harmonium, banjo, and vocals, I knew I was in for a treat. Through Tough Thoughts is a warm, friendly, accessible folk album that should be in the catalog of any folk-lover.
O’Jordan’s voice would in a previous era be called “twee”: a soft, high-pitched voice full of childlike wonder that meshes beautifully with the arrangement instead of trampling it. And by arrangement, I do mean that only harmonium and banjo appear on this album: there is nothing else. (“Miller’s Pond” does bring in some background vocals for some diversity, but other than that…) However, they are used in a variety of ways, and the album never get boring: there’s the roadtrip song (“A Lonely Road”), a harmonium ballad (“Patience is Gruesome”), a drone-y chant (“O! Benvolio!”), a quirky 22-second song (“Digital Postcard #5”), a protest song (“Polar Thoughts”), and an introspective banjo-led song (“Advice from Andre”), among others. The ability of O’Jordan to keep an album of limited instrumentation diverse and interesting is a testament to his songwriting prowess: he can write in a lot of different styles, yet still keep the album feeling cohesive.
Through Tough Thoughts is a lovely, unassuming album. The excellent songwriting is compelling without being complicated and beautiful without trying too hard. It feels like a natural outpouring of songwriting from a singer/songwriter with a vast store of skills to draw on. It’s a rewarding, remarkable record. Highly recommended.
Jacob Furr’s Sierra Madre is a wide-open, spacious alt-country/folk album that evokes fully-realized outfits like Hiss Golden Messenger, Magnolia Electric Co., and even Calexico. Furr’s weathered tenor sets the tone for the record: his sturdy yet lithe vocals mirror the music’s ability to thunder and whisper. The title track/opener is the thunder part: crunchy distorted guitars lead into a bass-led stomp that perfectly frames the opening line “Look into the darkened sky.” Closer “Easy Waves” brings more of that electric guitar fire, ratcheting up to a tremendous, towering album conclusion.
But Furr got his start as a folk troubadour, and there’s still good evidence of that here. The central songs of the album see Furr with just his voice and a fingerpicked guitar, telling stories like “The River” and “El Paso.” These are intense, minor-key works, not the major-key folk ramblers you might expect; they are almost as emotionally tumultuous as the stomping rockers are sonically tumultuous. The complexity of Furr’s voice and delivery are on full display here, showing him to be a careful, delicate performer in this vein. Sierra Madre is a complex, serious album that will be deeply enjoyed by fans of thoughtful, intense alt-country/folk.
For a person who came of age on OK Computer, it’s hard for me not to jump straight to Radiohead’s magnum opus when describing rock led by minor-key distorted guitars that is intended to be taken seriously by thoughtful people. Sunjacket‘s Mantrais that sort of weighty, thoughtful, inventive, unique music. Each song of Mantra packs its own punch, but the main elements of the sound remain the same: distorted guitars, electronic keys/synths, complex percussion, and Carl Hauck and Bryan Kveton’s confident voices.
Opener “Grandstanders” shows off these elements perfectly: lush synths open the track before being set to rhythm with a complex percussion line and heavily manipulated guitar sounds. The resulting landscape bears much in common with The Appleseed Cast’s excellent Peregrine.But instead of just barreling through this mood, the band plays with space and minimalism, progressively dropping everyone out all the way down to single snare hits after the chorus before pounding back in with the full band. It’s a head-turning move, the sort of thing that announces an album. And there is much to announce.
The skittering percussion and staccato synths of “Dissolve It” float a soulful vocal line from Hauck; the fusion is disorienting in the best way. “Not Enough” starts with clanging piano before being sandblasted by a wall of fuzzed-out synth. The song then pulls back into patterned, complex mid-tempo work like “Grandstanders.” “Alligator” feels something like a mix between Bon Iver’s current work, The National, and a heart-rate monitor (this is a compliment). The title track takes all the elements of this paragraph and somehow synthesizes them.
But my award for the most fascinating track goes to “Tongue,” which starts off like a lost MIA track full of digital sounds before being accosted by multitracked trumpet and thunderous bass synth. Right about the time it starts to really feel like a mid-’00s Radiohead track, a vocal line modulated down two or three octaves mourns its way through the landscape. It’s weird and fascinating and the perfect break between the icy, stomping electro of “Habit” and the punchy, catchy rock of “No One’s Around You.”
Mantra is the rare “smart” rock album that isn’t hard to get. It’s weird, it’s quirky, it’s got a unique point of view, but it’s not grueling or punishing. You can listen to it through and hear the guitars and synths and take it at face value. (And its face value is great.) But for those who want to spend more time with their albums, Sunjacket has created an album full of nooks and crannies for listeners to explore. Brilliant stuff here. Highly recommended.