Yellow Feather‘s “Lucille” video is a warm, goofy, good-natured clip that features the wanderings of band leader Hunter Begley in a cardboard bird outfit, a gold (yellow?) feather necklace, and underwear. (Okay, also socks/shoes.) He makes his way out of a forest, over a bridge, into a derelict barn, through an outdoor market, and finally on top of a boxcar. There’s also a kicker at the end that gives some hint as to what’s actually going on in the clip, but I’ll let you discover that yourself.
The song itself is almost as good-natured as the clip itself; it’s a gently honky-tonkin’, loping Americana tune a la Old Crow Medicine Show. The bouncy arrangement contrasts with the wry, regretful lyrics, displaying the remorse that comes of realizing (and re-realizing, and re-realizing) you weren’t the good one in the relationship.
The vocal delivery from Begley is perfect: there’s a touch of the shame he’s singing about around the edges of the lines, but also enough buoyancy to keep up with the major key arrangement. It’s a great song to go along with a great video.
“Lucille” is the lead single from And Gold, which drops tomorrow, December 1.
Chaperone Picks’ Disappearing Better is a true-blue lo-fi album recorded four-track to cassette. Mr. Picks (the artist’s preferred moniker) doesn’t just maintain the recording aesthetic of the late ’80s and early ’90s–his successfully songs carry the torch for the songwriting style touted by The Mountain Goats, Sentridoh, and The Microphones.
Disappearing Better would probably be called an indie-pop record these days, or maybe a singer/songwriter record, but it’s best understood as a lo-fi record. These are sort-of pop songs, written quickly (but not sloppily) with an intentionally small amount of instrumental layers and preserved almost as soon as they were made. This type of songwriting is a specific, almost self-contained universe that contains masterpieces for those willing to make the trek. (All Hail West Texas by the Mountain Goats is the apex of this style for me; it contains two or three of my favorite songs of all time, but was written/recorded in a manner of weeks.)
Chaperone Picks nails the ethos here, producing some great songs along the way. “Calling You Out On Me” features lo-fi’s almost-trademark heavy acoustic guitar strum and an absurdly hummable vocal melody. Follow-up “And Let Live” includes drums to create a punchier vibe, but the core elements of acoustic guitar, great vocal melodies, and Mr. Picks’ front-and-center vocals remain. “Mouth to Mouth” tempers some of the chunky strum with high-mixed lead acoustic lines and charming tambourine, creating a quieter version of the Picks sound that retains all of the interest of the aforementioned songs.
Part of the intrigue of lo-fi is a function of its quickly-created premise: the songs are all (generally) mined from one vein. Instead of writing a bunch of songs over a long period of time that may have wide variations in style and content, a true lo-fi album is a snapshot of a moment in time. Disappearing Better has a clearly identifiable flavor, from the melancholy opener “I Suppose” to the frustration-outlet “And Let Live” to the speak/sing vocal performance of closer “True Lives.” This is a autumnal record, one that isn’t strongly minor key or strongly major key. There are some songs that sound melancholy but seem to have generally positive lyrics (“True Lives”) and vice versa. If you’re into seasonal listening, this may help you go from fall to winter in your listening regimen.
Disappearing Better is a record that gets better with time: the more I learn the subtle contours of the songs, the more the record endears itself to me. That’s another hallmark of lo-fi that Chaperone Picks doesn’t disappoint on. If you’re looking for some strong acoustic lo-fi work, look no further than Disappearing Better. You’ll be humming along soon.
This Pale Fire‘s Alchemy is a svelte modern folk record that focuses on atmosphere and space. The delicate electric fingerpicking, emotion-wracked voice, and subtle arrangements of Corban Koschak’s project call up dusky visions and streetlight thoughts from the awestruck opener “Northern Lights” to the piano-led hush of “Outro.”
In between, there are moments of pristine chill (“The Sky,” “Mountains”) solid popcraft (“Float Out”), and post-rock fury (“End of Science”), although the album is much more heavily weighted to the former two (“Wolf,” “The Stag”). Strings, percussion, and other elements wend their way through the work, but it’s Koschak’s confident, engaging voice that takes center stage throughout. Fans of Hozier, Vance Joy, Passenger, and other serious singer/songwriters will find much to love here.
Two Sets of Eyes‘ self-titled debut EP is a mind-bending release that manages to seamlessly mesh moments of wildly inventive, almost avant-garde weirdness into songs that were already clever, intricate indie-rock pieces. From the bold-move instrumental opener to the ten-minute closer extravaganza, Two Sets of Eyes doesn’t cover the same patch of earth twice.
Opener “Sunshine, You’re Standing in My Sunlight” opens with a fuzzed-out arpeggiator and a hip-hop kit beat before morphing into a vaguely dystopian mood with the addition of melodies from what sounds like a heavily manipulated guitar or keyboard. The sci-fi intensity ratchets up with the addition of various synth layers, creating something that sounds like Muse on its best day or instrumental hip-hoppers Jaw Gems scoring a Mad Max film. The track consistently throws curveballs at the listener, providing an exciting standalone experience and a clue as to the mayhem that is to come.
Lead single “For the Last Time” zips in a different direction, fusing early ’00s emo (a la Promise Ring), smooth jazz saxophone, and quirky indie-pop vocals with some beachy vibes and sleigh bells for spice. Yet (as with the opening track) the song sounds internally consistent–at no point does a switch in sonics lose me as a listener. Those with wide sonic interests will love the diversity between tracks, too.
And that diversity gets even wider with “Cash Me Out (ft. Bardo)” — even though this one’s the most straightforward of the tracks (ha!), it’s a woozy, complex R&B backdrop with Bardo’s smooth, even flow over it. The trio can’t resist going from moderately chill to intense even within the confines of an R&B banger, though: the culmination of the track is a spiraling, thrashy punk-jazz blast.
“No Simple Words” continues the intensity by starting off with a post-punk/post-hardcore guitar line, but throws some cooing melismas on top of it to make it weird. The track bends expectations (even those expectations of chaos set up earlier in the EP) with glee. But all of this is just prologue to the monster ten-minute closer “Waiting/Reacting,” which is one of those songs that makes me think, “How do they remember all of these parts in order?” The tune combines many of the aforementioned references in the EP (post-hardcore, emo, indie-pop vocals, dystopian space rock, synth mania, as well as impressive bass work) into a marathon of creativity.
Two Sets of Eyes’ debut EP has enough inventive ideas to fill an album two or three times its length. The fact that they wind them tightly into five songs is a win for the listener, who is treated to a ton of things blasting out of the speakers at breakneck pace. Adventurous listeners should be thrilled to hear such a fascinating new entry into the indie rock world. Highly recommended.
Nina de Vitry’s soulful voice, jazzy composition, and creative lyrics make her breakout EP, Trust A Dream, a sweet treat for the ears. De Vitry’s soothing vocals are reminiscent of an early Norah Jones (think “Come Away with Me”) mixed with a neo-soul/India.Arie influence. The EP’s instrumentation provides the perfect backdrop for de Vitry’s beautiful voice to shine. Each track off the album contains a playfully unique combination of percussion, acoustic guitar, brass, and stand-up bass. For me, what stands out most on this EP are the thoughtful lyrics that drive the music forward.
Through examining the lyrics, it becomes clear that this EP represents a journey of discovering oneself. Even though that may sound like a cliche, Trust a Dream doesn’t feel cliche at all; it’s too inventive. The first track starts off the EP with question over question: “Can you trust a dream?” “Does it melt your mind?” “Do you feel at home?” and “Do you feel it in your bones?”. Yet, the opening of the chorus– “O, there’s plenty of time, my darling, to be rigid as a stone”– shows that the speaker already has a solid foundation to help figure out some of the answers to these questions. Perhaps the questions are more for the listener to know the kind of weighty things that this collection will explore. Particularly the repeated, “Can you trust a dream?” feels akin to Langston Hughes’ “What happens to a dream deferred?” from Harlem. As we know, Hughes already has an idea–he just wants to make sure his readers are thinking about the same things he is.
When track two comes around, “Baby in the Shade”, we see that the EP contains a lot of hope and optimism, with the repetition of “it’s gonna be ok, gonna be ok, cuz it’s always ok” in the bridge. The playful brass, bass, and keys further reinforce the track’s whimsical nature.
The third song feels like a jazzier version of Randy Newman’s Toy Story classic “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”; but instead of the “you” being a person, de Vitry is addressing the land in the title of the song, “Golden County”. The creative wordplay of the lyrics particularly stands out, for example: “But fear not Golden County, they’ll be silver while the gold is still ours” and “I’ll be out chasin’ freedom, leavin’ sun and takin’ moon as my guide”. “Darling” then carries the whimsy along, while “Broken Cities” diverts the journey of the album to look at the other side– those who have been robbed of their hope and optimism.
With the EP’s fifth track, “Broken Cities”, de Vitry takes an honest look at cities, opening with the lyrics: “Broken cities empty fast when lights are more than day”. The lyrics of this track are more socially focused than the other songs off the EP. A prime example is “Broken cities disinfect, then cauterize our minds / Clean em’ out, then close em’ up, in hopes that we don’t find / We just wanna fly away/ We just wanna find our way”. In case you don’t know (I also had to look it up), “cauterize” means “to burn with a hot iron”. So, here de Vitry is saying that “broken cities” burn resident’s minds with a hot iron in the name of disinfecting, all the while really just wiping them clear in order to make residents forget that they too can dream and have hope.
“Live like Water Lives” could not close out the EP more beautifully. The peaceful strumming of the acoustic guitar reflects the tranquil focus of the lyrics. The chorus repeats the title “live like water lives” and throughout the song, the verses expound and give light to what that really means. A few snippets of what it means to “live like water lives” are: “Fall soft like the rain,” “Be bold like the storms,” “Kiss like the mist, caress like the sea,” “Run brave as a river,” “Be open like the ocean’s plain,” and “Shift free like the waves”. Here, it seems the artist shares her words of advice that perhaps helped her attain the hope she shares with her listeners in the other five songs.
Trust A Dream is a powerful collection of soulful tracks. Nina de Vitry’s EP contains a level of depth that is not found in a lot of music today. And its playful yet soothing sound leaves listeners relaxed and ready for more. If you happen to live in the Lancaster, PA, region, de Vitry’s CD release party is on December 20th. I’m sure it will be wonderful.–Krisann Janowitz
1. “Alabama Dissonance” – The Bowling Alley Sound. As a person who has felt the tensions of being an outsider living in Alabama, I can affirm that there is a lot of Alabama Dissonance. The instrumental post-rock track here displays some of those emotions via a jarring, off-kilter, start/stop tune full of found sound and sudden shocks. There’s also a banjo, for good measure. It’s a wild, unusual experience.
2. “The Things We Let Fall Apart” – Sontag Shogun and Moskitoo. Fans of Jonsi’s most ambient work will love the wide-eyed, child-like wonder encompassed in this track. Makes me think of roaming through a wide, bright valley up between two mountains.
3. “Better” – Cayden Wemple. Sort of like Bright Eyes meets Sam Smith, this tune from Wemple has a folk-singer’s lyrical complexity, an alt-folkie’s lyrical specificity, and well-done contemporary acoustic singer/songwriter sonics. A very exciting track–Wemple’s one to watch.
4. “Vultures on Your Bones” – Felsen. Pushing back on the technological imperative narrative is deeply important to the work that I do outside this blog, so it’s with great interest that I heard this folk-rock tune asking for just that. The tune itself will be a hit with fans of old-school Dawes, as the melodies and instrumentation are a fantastic American roots rock melange.
5. “Lurking from the Sidelines” – Ira Lawrence. Lawrence returns with his “haunted mandolin”–punchy tunes created by distorting, manipulating, looping, and layering a single mandolin to the max. This, as you might imagine, creates a very unique sound with little bass and lots of open space. This particular track is an impressive demonstration of all that Lawrence is going for. Adventurous listening.
6. “First Day of My Life” – All Deep Ends. I very rarely feature covers at IC, but this one is such a giant transformation that I felt it worthwhile. ADE takes Bright Eyes’ delicate, tentative love song and gives it the full-on Deep Elm emo treatment: distant vocals, distorted guitars, thrashing drums, and a sense of desperation. It doesn’t sound over-the-top, as massive transformations can sometimes feel. Instead, it’s impressive.
7. “Wander” – Trevor Hall. I’m not sure I would have put Indian raga vibes, trip-hop influences, folk fingerpicking, glitchy vocal sampling, autotune, and raspy proto-rapping in one track, but Hall does that all excellently. That’s why Hall writes ’em and I don’t.
8. “Forget Forgive” – Someone. Intimate, close-quarters production allows the bass guitar and vocals to jump out of my headphones with an urgency that contrasts with the walking-speed tempo of this indie-pop tune. As a huge fan of deconstructed songs, this punches a lot of buttons for me.
9. “Sister, I” – Jesse Marchant. Marchant continues within his oeuvre of expressive, mesmerizing, slowly-unfolding singer/songwriter tunes. Quiet but intense, soft-spoken but with deep stores of emotion beneath the veneer, this tune (and Marchant’s work) is more than meets the ear at first. Dive deep.
10. “Maria Come Home” – Kevin Pearce. A subtly yearning, churning folk tune that celebrates Maria Callas, the famed soprano opera singer. The tune has a dense arrangement but a light feel overall: the tensions are beautifully resolved by strings that float above it all and tie the tune together.
11. “Secret” – Circumnavigate. If you’re the sort of person that gets super-excited about a cappella codas, you’re going to be all over this svelte folk track with just that type of ending.
12. “For They Who Had to Go I” – Klangriket. This solo piano elegy for those lost in the Stockholm terror attack this spring is a fitting tribute: mournful yet hopeful, light yet with heaviness around the edges of the lines, stark but also warm.
Cameron Blake‘s previous album Alone on the World Stagewas aptly titled: the music was mostly Blake’s voice accompanied by a single instrument, while the lyrics were often internally-focused. Fear Notis Blake at the opposite end of the spectrum: a crew of almost fifty musicians rushes from Tiananmen Square to Jerusalem to Baltimore to rural farm country to send the titular message to all of humanity. It is an album of unprecedented scope for Blake. The risk pays off in spades, as this is Blake’s most distinctive, accomplished work to date.
Blake’s voice remains front and center through it all. His low, drama-laden voice is a singular one that I can pick out instantly wherever I hear it. Blake’s vocal performances are the type that’ll grow on you; his tone is often-brash, he pairs a love of unexpected chord changes with unexpected vocal melodies, and he is unafraid to roar. Those who love atypical vocal presentations like those of Frightened Rabbit, Damien Rice, The Walkmen/Hamilton Leithauser and others will find much to love in Blake’s voice.
One of the big transformations in this record is Blake’s comfort level with the vocal lines he writes. He’s never been afraid to go for a soaring line, but here he is clearly in the zone. Between the rock-solid pop lines of “The Only Diamond,” the thrilling theatrics of “Old Red Barn,” the powerful emotion in “Tiananmen Square,” and the subtle inflections in the delivery of “Philip Seymour Hoffman,” Blake shows that he can confidently use his voice in a wide array of situations.
It’s good that his voice is versatile, because this album is a whirlwind of moods. “Sandtown” is a ten-car pileup of thrashing drums, skronking jazz horns, and vocal howls that seems to accurately describe the chaos of a Baltimore police raid. On the other end of the spectrum, the title track opener is about as delicate as the album gets, with an angelic choral backdrop and cello supporting Blake’s voice and piano. “Queen Bee” is a train-whistle folk-rock rave-up, while “Old Red Barn” is a jubilant dixieland track. Several of the tracks slot into his core sound of dramatic singer/songwriter tracks with folk influences (“Tiananmen Square,” “Wailing Wall,” “Monterey Bay”), but the diversity here is huge.
And yet, as much as “Queen Bee,” “The Only Diamond,” and “Old Red Barn” are a blast, it’s “Tiananmen Square” that is the standout here. The hugely emotive song is based on fingerpicked acoustic guitar, filled out with trebly piano keys, noodly lead guitar, solemn cello, reverent vocal melismas, and thoughtful drums.
Blake’s voice swings from calm to booming in the huge conclusion to the song, as the strings ratchet up and the drums push hard. The reason for the drama is the story of Tank Man, who defied Chinese tanks in 1989. Blake draws the listener into the story, then poses and answers a central question to the listener: “Was I born for this? / I was born for this.” The global scope of the incident and the personal nature of the questions in light of that important event are expertly juxtaposed. This tension between the lofty and the minor is balanced in the lyrics throughout the record.
Cameron Blake’s Fear Not is an intense experience of great scope and depth. It is an album that is in turns wrenching and fun. Its impact is in clear relationship to its scope: there’s a lot to hear here, and a lot to think about once you’ve heard it. If you’re into adventurous work from a thoughtful writer, Fear Not should be on your must-hear list for the year. Highly recommended.
1. “Boys Will Be Boys” – Stella Donnelly. The spartan songwriting here gives a perfect contrast to Donnelly’s powerful vocals. The song itself is a knockout without even considering the lyrics; pairing the song with her harrowingly honest lyrics about rape creates a tour-de-force moment for Donnelly and what should be a deeply sobering reality check and call to action for all men (myself included).
2. “Maria También” – Khruangbin. This unclassifiable, incredibly cool instrumental track features elements of Middle Eastern music, some vaguely surf-rock overtones, and found sound celebrating the role of women in pre-1979 revolution. The band notes that the video continues the celebration of that time and place via the performances of “a large network of artists, singers, dancers and songwriters who have been either exiled or silenced since the revolution.”
3. “Seattle” – Strangers by Accident. SbA has expanded from an acoustic folk duo to a folk-rock four-piece on the EP this cut comes from; this track, fronted by female and male vocals, features punchy drums, a speedy tempo, and even a mini guitar solo. But the highlight moment of the track is a breakdown to two vocals and an acoustic guitar, just like the old days–they haven’t abandoned their roots. It’s a strong hello to a new sound.
4. “So Kind” – Kat Myers and the Buzzards. Fans of easygoing West Coast country and female vocals will have a blast with this track. The tune slowly grows from a small tune to a rip-roaring country-rock track led by alternately blazing/delicate electric guitar and Myers’ confident vocals.
5. “Sail on the Water” – Molly Parden. A silky, suave ’70s-inspired singer/songwriter track that calls to mind Fleetwood Mac and other purveyors of dreamy, mystical work.
6. “Dominika” – Jordan Klassen. Somewhere between the woodsy folk of Fleet Foxes and the pristine folk arrangements of Mutual Benefit lands this lightly funky, somewhat proggy (!) folk tune. The video is a magnificent slice of ’90s tribute/parody.
7. “Shadow” – John Hufford. Timely and timeless, this acoustic track incorporates historic vocal harmony styles, contemporary lead vocal melodies, and never-gets-old synth/xylophone combo to create a song not quite folk, not quite indie-pop, and totally impressive.
8. “Throw Ourselves In” – Marsicans. Marsicans’ run of fantastic is unprecedented in IC’s hallowed halls–I’ve now covered six straight Marsicans singles, and they’ve all been amazing. This one has some ’00s pop-punk yells thrown into their peppy indie-guitar-rock for good measure. Everything else (insanely catchy melodies, big guitars, impeccable song structure) is still there. If you haven’t jumped on the Marsicans train, you need to do it as soon as possible. Preferably yesterday.
9. “Moments” – Everywhere. Dance-rock is tough to assess–sometimes over-the-top is great (think The Killers) and sometimes understated is boss (think Cobra Starship). This smooth, sleek track passes the basic test (“do you want to dance”) and also passes the higher bar (“is there something beyond a big dance beat going on”) with flying colors via an M83/Capital Cities-esque atmosphere.
10. “Superhero” – Fuzzystar. Power-pop that’s mellowed somewhat by indie-pop vocal aesthetics–but there are some mathy/emo-esque guitar theatrics to kick it back up a notch. Overall, it’s a fun, engaging pop tune.
Hood Smoke‘s “Depending on the Fool” is an evocative, downtempo tune that falls somewhere between indie-pop, soul, and Casio-pop. The casio-style beat creates a subtle groove, the arrangement lopes along like a lost tune by the Antlers, and the vocals are rich and soulful.
The results are a swaying, carefully-developed song that grew on me quite a bit over multiple listens. The contemplative pace and style to the tune echo the lyrics, which bandleader Bryan Doherty mentions are a touch melancholy: the track “comes from the idea that humans accrue moral and ethical debts as years add up; the song is an ode to an attempt to relieve any pressure acquired over time.” Between the arrangement, the vocals, and the lyrics, the idea of looking back in sadness and looking forward in hope is clear.
“Depending on the Fool” comes from Cannonball Porch, which dropsFebruary 23, 2018.
The ukulele had a moment in the late ’00s: between “Hey Soul Sister,” “You and I” by Ingrid Michaelson, and a host of other ukulele-toting bands, things were getting downright cheery all over the place. Vibes have obviously changed in the culture and in musical scenes; ukulele is way less used today. However, the instrument’s ability to create a warm, sunshiny vibe is the same–it’s just waiting there for someone to champion it.
Enter twnsppl. twigs by townsppl is easily one of the most gleeful, charming, carefree albums released in 2017. For a year that’s been full of divorce albums and incisive protest music, twigs offers a heaping helping of respite.
The title track is the opener, and it’s a great tune. Bandleader Alexander Stanton’s tenor voice is smooth and clear, delivered over the aforementioned ukulele and some bouncing bass. The chorus shifts from straight-ahead indie-pop to Graceland-influenced pop with the addition of “whoa-oh-ohs,” African-harmony background vocals, and chanted “heys”. The vibe is spot-on, the recording is perfectly done, and the whole thing comes off like a million bucks. It’s a “sit-up-and-pay-attention” opener for an indie-pop fan.
“so so-so” slows down the tempo and introduces ukulele fingerpicking, which is lovely. The majority of the album lives in this mid-tempo indie-pop realm, exploring many different ways to chill with a ukulele in your arms (or ears). Both “so so-so” and “i’ll be home soon (can it wait till I get there)” have can’t-get-it-out-of-my-head chorus vocal lines, while “cut magazines” and “don’t blink” show off Stanton’s arrangement skills primarily. (Not to malign the great vocal melodies in those tunes.)
“don’t blink” is a highlight: sounding somewhat like a Sufjan Christmas take in both enthusiasm and warmly comforting mood, the tune hums along with an effervescent grin. The delicate closing piano line bowled me over the first time I heard it–it’s a simple thing, but it’s executed perfectly. In other words: #nailedit.
The tunes here are mostly chipper and bright, but one stands out from the pack as being more reserved: “the road to end up” is a somber, serious pop tune reminiscent of Blind Pilot’s vocal melodies and Ivan & Alyosha’s electric guitar use. It’s a strong counterpoint to the rest of the tunes, subverting expectations just enough to add a good break in the sound. The album concludes with the solo performance “sparks,” which is also a little more serious than the rest of the tunes. But even that can’t sustain a straight face for too long before bringing in a lo-fi arrangement to brighten the corners. It’s a great conclusion to a relentlessly appealing album.
Having reviewed music for 14.5 years, I’ve learned to be reserved in my initial response to a record. But some albums cause me to break my rules. I have enjoyed every track on this record unabashedly. It’s a dinger–there’s not a bad track on the whole thing. Each track of twigs is clever, thoughtful, and deeply enjoyable. It will easily land on my top ten albums of the year. If you’re into indie-pop, this is a must-hear. Highly Recommended.
You can check out townsppl at the twigs Album Release Show on Friday, 11/10, at Club Cafe in Pittsburgh. If I were anywhere near there, I’d be headed up. It’s bound to be a blast.
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.