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Vickers Vimy’s Atlas of Hearts

May 15, 2018

Vickers Vimy’s Atlas of Hearts is a strong, diverse album that excels based on the band’s crafty arrangement skills and excellent vocal performances.

Vickers Vimy can write compelling folk tunes in a variety of milieus. Opener “Bonfire of Dantes” is wrapped in the adornments of Spaghetti Westerns, with lazy trumpets and high-drama guitar work, while follow-up “Chicago” is only a touch less catchy and loads more mandolin-folky than Sufjan’s track of the same name.

“Mermaid of Luna Park” has some screamin sax, blaring organ, and ‘90s Goo Goo Dolls vibes in the guitar tone and vocal melodies. “Peg and Hammer” has the insistent urgency of The Rural Alberta Advantage, while “Keep Your Eyes on the Road” is a cross between Josh Ritter and Jack Johnson. They know how to write a great song in tons of different ways. It’s like an early Decemberists album that has 15 different things going on per album but it all sounds great together.

Their vision coalesces around the title track, where a clarinet duets with a violin playing a slightly dissonant line. The rest of the band hums along perfectly, giving the lead instruments and the vocals tons of space. Even though the arrangement here is stellar, it’s the vocals that win this tune. Ed Drea has a high tenor voice prone to soaring lines, and that tendency is put to great effect in this track. Elsewhere he controls his voice on the hushed, European, open-air cafe vibe of “Budapest” and even sneaks in some ominous spoken word on murder ballad “Red Moon Rising.” There’s not a bad performance in the record, as all of the vocals are compelling and clear.

Atlas of Hearts is a record of wide-ranging interests and ideas. The band pulls it all off admirably, and the vocals sell the whole work. If you’re into eclectic full-band folk like Beirut or The Decemberists, this will catch your interest quite a bit.

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Jamison Isaak’s EP1 introduces a new neo-classical voice

May 14, 2018

As Teen Daze, Jamison Isaak has explored lush chillwave, krautrock-inspired techno, beautifully-orchestrated ambient work, and many other forms of low-stress electronica. Given his constant sonic explorations, his interest in acoustic instrumentation and his prolific work ethic, it’s not surprising that he would eventually turn out a fully neo-classical offering. His first effort on that front, the aptly titled EP1, is a peaceful piano and slide guitar offering. Even though there are many quiet moments in Jamison’s discography, this work as a unit is more peaceful than anything he’s done previously. Yet, the composition maintains many of the same approaches, particularly his affection for slowly unfolding ideas.

Opener “Sharalee” sets the tone for the whole EP, as piano keys tumbling gently over each other are met by a delicate, soaring, barely-even-feels-like-pedal-steel guitar. The fusion is deeply calming while still maintaining a sense of melodic motion. This is a particularly impressive feat because none of the lush arranging that marks his other work is present–it’s just piano and occasional distant guitar. This means that Isaak has to rely entirely on his ability to create indelible melodies and his well-tuned sense of space. In relying on those things, he succeeds admirably. “Sharalee” is a fantastic track that offers a wealth of re-listening value.

“Upstairs” is a quiet rumination, a sort of rainy-day-bedroom-pop version of neo-classical music. The mood is very well-suited to the pitter patter of rain that you can imagine just offscreen. It’s short and sweet and it works. In contrast, “Wind” shows off some of his compositional complexity. Isaak layers multiple piano lines together in a somewhat polyrhythmic way to create an overlapping tension that he gracefully resolves by the end of the piece.

Closer “More” is a tune that most resembles a Teen Daze song in its melodic approach. There’s a subtle tension between major and minor that is common in Jamison’s electronic work. It’s also the song that most resembles a mid-century minimalist piece, as Isaak repeats an elegant phrase many times with subtle variations in keying and pedal steel performance. It is not one of the most relaxing pieces, but it is one of the most interesting for someone who is interested in mid-century minimalism.

Ultimately, EP1 one is a welcome entrée into the world of neo-classical music from Jamison Isaak. I look forward to hearing more of his piano work, perhaps with even more orchestration, in the future. This EP is lovely, and makes me excited to see where he goes as a composer, as well as a creator of electronic music. Highly recommended.

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Joy Ike: a groove-laden, super-charged, piano-led singer/songwriter

May 7, 2018

Joy Ike‘s Bigger than Your Box is a record that supercharges piano-led singer/songwriter work with powerful grooves.

Each of the first four tracks on the 11-song record have shiver-inducing moments where the gear shifts and Ike just starts going for it. Big moments aren’t unusual singer/songwriter work (see: Adele, Damien Rice, Glen Hansard, etc.), but the way that Ike does big moments is. “Ever Stay” is a moody, ruminating track full of swooping cello and left-hand punch that gets kicked up a gear via an instrumental bridge where percussion and wordless, occasionally ululating vocals throw the song into overdrive. Ike’s vocals there and in the final chorus are strong. 

“By the Fire” starts off as a quiet singer/songwriter ballad which is again amped up by percussion, left-hand groove, and Ike’s roaring vocals. But that doesn’t hold a candle to the wild, stomping, furious 1:37 of “You Betta,” which is one of the most punchy, unexpected, excited bits of un-genre-able music I’ve heard in a while. The gospel choir involved here is ace. “Last Time” is a kiss-off song that fans of Adele and/or fans of a big pop ballad crescendo will love.

Those four songs set the tone for the rest of the record, which mixes in some of those vibes amid a collection of strong piano-pop/singer-songwriter work. “Give a Little” is a description of an icy relationship set to a Parisian cafe tune, complete with accordion; “I Don’t Know Anything” is a solid, straight-down-the-middle singer/songwriter tune. “Walk” is a moving song sonically and lyrically, featuring a reappearance of the gospel choir in a more traditional role. If you like your singer/songwriters with some groove and punch, Joy Ike’s Bigger than Your Box will give you a lot to chew on.

*Disclosure: I supported the Kickstarter for this record.

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Adam Stafford’s work is a kaleidoscopic wonder

May 4, 2018

Adam Stafford‘s Fire Behind the Curtain is a highly eclectic instrumental work, combining elements of mid-century minimalist melodic patterning, contemporary ambient work, soundtrack scoring, and whimsy into one kaleidoscopic neo-classical work. I like all of those elements individually, so it’s no shock that I really like this album as a unit.

I mention a kaleidoscope because while Stafford does have a few pieces that show his whole composing vision (standouts “An Abacus Designed to Calculate Infinity,” “The Witch Hunt”), the majority of the works here show off one aspect of his ideas each. The delicate-yet-frenetic, patterned melodies and counter-melodies of “Zero Disruption” point to his affinity for mid-century minimalism. “Sails Cutting Through an Autumn Night” is as narrative and soundtrack-oriented as you would expect from the title. “Holographic Tulsa Mezzanine” is an sort-of ambient/chillwave/undefinable track built off churning, chopped synths.

There are moments where his ideas crash into each other: the amazing “Penshaw Monument” is a dense, minimalist, nearly-11-minute composition created almost entirely of beatboxing, singing, and yelling. The tone of the song is not as whimsical as the whistling over the thickly layered composition of “An Abacus Designed to Calculate Infinity”, but conceptually the song is highly whimsical (“What if I had 11 minutes of beatboxing?”). 10-minute closer “I Dreamed I Was a Murderer” fuses a highly ambient, textural opening with long woodwind notes for an experimental neo-classical experience. (If you’re into Michael Gordon’s work, you’ll be into this piece.)

Fire Behind the Curtain is its strength. This album has ideas just exploding from everywhere. Fans of adventurous, gleefully genre-mashing instrumental music will find much to love in this wild experience.

Quick Hits: TJ Foster / Ryan Hutchens

May 3, 2018

If you stick around in the music reviewing game long enough, you get to see whole long swaths of people’s careers. I’ve been covering TJ Foster’s work with Accents and then Darling Valley since 2012, and Ryan Hutchens’ work as Cancellieri since 2014. Both of the songwriters have new releases out under their own names. Both of the albums are highly retrospective releases, giving a glimpse into what was happening personally over the last few years that I’ve known them professionally.

TJ Foster‘s First Person, Volume One contains tracks like “An Ode to My Twenties” (self-explanatory) and “The Basement,” which details his changing relationship throughout his life to a sanctum of sorts. Both of these songs touch on his parents’ divorce, which is one of many personal events that he’s sorting out in this record.

Given that content, the tone of the record is very sad: there’s a romantic nobility in facing sadness with dignity, and Foster is trying to walk that path. Standout opener “I Don’t Know” sets the tone that pervades almost every track, as Foster sets gloriously-executed multi-tracked vocal harmony over a solemn fingerpicked guitar melody. The song closes with as good a thesis statement as you can get for a sort-through-the-past album: “Am I a sucker for sadness, or is it one for me? / Am I losing my grip on some reality? / I don’t know / I don’t know.” It’s an excellent song.

Elsewhere “Brokenfine” adds solid piano, allowing for even more gravitas. “An Ode to My Twenties” is an upbeat major-key folk tune complete with harmonica–it’s one of the few moments of sunshine sonically, even if the lyrics are still (mostly) in line with the rest of the record. “What If” is a slightly dreamy take on folk, while “57” is a quiet tune built off another lovely finger-picking-and-vocals core. First Person, Volume One is a specific, personal record that could hit someone doing a re-evaluation of their 20s square in the numbers.

Ryan Hutchens‘ The Last Ten Years is retrospective in several ways; the record has a lyrical cast looking back on the last decade, while also re-recording some tunes previously released as Cancellieri. For someone who’s been following his work for a while, it’s nice to hear some songs that are like old friends (“Fortunate Peace” in particular).

The sonic vibe is not overtly sad–opener “Green My Eyes” has a gently adventurous arrangement that sounds like a Freelance Whales track, what with the complex patterning of banjo and guitar melodies laid against subtle drone-like element (in this case piano and distant guitar chords). It’s a warm, inviting track, welcoming you into the record. Hutchens loves calm, peaceful arrangements, and even this complex one has an overall feeling of relaxation.

Right after that track comes the title track of the record, which sets a tone lyrically–there’s a sense of loss and even bitterness in these tracks. The loss is especially raw in “The Trouble With You”. There’s some unrequited love spread throughout the record, some re-evaluation of a working-musician’s career trajectory (“The Landing”), and some consideration of loneliness and death (“Poor Old Man,” “The Landing” again).

But even “The Landing,” the lyrical core of the very sad lyrical set, is a major key folk shuffle with lazy pedal steel evoking Hawaiian vibes. If you’re the sort that listens to the vibe instead of the lyrics, this record will have a completely different feel for you than if you’re one who scrutinizes the words. Yet the dichotomy isn’t as terribly jarring as it sounds on paper, because Hutchens’ voice contains all manner of emotions throughout the tunes–his vocal performances hold the two pieces of the record together. If you’re into peaceful singer/songwriter records with strong arrangements and/or difficult lyrics, you’ll be into The Last Ten Years. 

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Darlingside captures the digital zeitgeist

May 2, 2018

Marshall McLuhan is known for saying “The medium is the message,” but one of his lesser-known statements is that the content of any new medium is a remediation of the old medium. He was working at the time when television was emerging as a new medium, and so he argued that the content of television was largely content from radio (which, if you look at the early days of television, was true). We’re now firmly ensconced in the popular maturation of the digital medium, and so it would follow that the content of the digital medium is a remediation of the television that came before it. (Hello, YouTube.)

However, as a medium develops, creators become more familiar with and comfortable with the things that a medium can do. These creators then start to make things unique to the medium. (These “unique to the medium” things become the stuff remediated when the next media comes around.)

Darlingside‘s Extralife is a remediation of the folk tradition in a digital milieu, with the content of “digital music” being a reframing and reshaping of the old content (folk music). Darlingside isn’t the first to combine folk and electronics (folktronica is a whole genre unto itself). However, society has advanced through time, and digital-influenced folk has matured to a point where Darlingside’s work feels less like a quirky outlier or early-adopter noodling and more like an accurate descriptor of the present moment. Add in lyrics that span the distance from pastoral reminiscent to fears about the end of time, and you’ve got something that nails the ethos of our era just about as well as OK Computer nailed its time.

The first thing to note here is not the digital work, but the thick, multi-tracked vocals that evoke Fleet Foxes, The Oh Hellos, or the Collection in approach. These feel spot-on; they lend a we’re-all-in-this-together vibe to the tracks. The vocal melodies are solid throughout, from the wide-eyed “Extralife” to the soaring “Singularity” to the Paul Simon-esque verses of “Futures.” You can sing along to this record, just like you can with any good folk record.

The arrangements surrounding those vocals explore a specific range of territory: these tracks are often minor-key, but not grim; filled with lush atmospheres, but not necessarily “warm” in the way of The Low Anthem. Instead, there’s a density to the arrangement of each of the tracks that gives them gravitas without robbing them of human connection. “Hold Your Head Up High” displays this tension perfectly; there’s some Bon Iver-level arch iciness filled in/contrasted with mournful trumpet and accordion. There’s a bit of an autotune edge on the vocals, again evoking Bon Iver–but the lyrics are optimistic and the vocal melodies tend to follow (in a way).

This tension between minor and major, between optimistic and sad, is extended in the digital aspects of the record. Opener “Extralife” opens with what sounds like sharpened, manipulated violins, then gives way to a patient arpeggiator as the basis of the track. What sounds like accordion (maybe it’s a synth?) comes in over it, smoothing out the rhythms of the arpeggiator. An acoustic guitar eases its way in on top, with the lyrics weaving video game concepts and metaphors through all that. The digital is part of everything, not a gimmick or a cheat code, but a part of how they write.

Nowhere is this more prevalent than in standout “Eschaton,” which also starts out with a perky arpeggiator and delightfully droning counterpoint. But from that beginning, the song expands into a punchy, full-throated indie-rock track, complete with Paul Simon-esque lyrics like “They’re making martyrs out of tennis stars / did you think they were ours?” The digital (the arpeggiator goes slightly bonkers), the acoustic (that cello line is wonderful), and the vocal all blend together beautifully.

It’s not all the digital future: “Old Friend” includes flutes in a pastoral setting, “Lindisfarne” is as close as they get to a Fleet Foxes song, and “The Rabbit and the Pointed Gun” feels like a latter-day Iron and Wine idea. But these are all placed in the context of album that opens with “Extralife” and closes with the enthusiastic “Best of the Best Times,” which sounds like a cross between ELO (those futurists) and a folk vocal performance with failing machine sounds thrown in. It is a major key song about sadness, which sets it apart from the record in some regards; however, the sonic threads that Darlingside cultivates through the rest of the record all come to bear here, creating a thoroughly satisfying conclusion to the record.

This is a big record that aims high–they shoot for a lot, and they hit most of it. Those big ambitions pay off. This is a folk record that looks backwards and forwards, creating an excellent record that sounds very contemporary. Yet it’s contemporary in the way that can stand–it’s more a stake in the ground than a trend-following ephemeral piece. This is fantastic work. Highly recommended.

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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.

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