I’ve been behind Accents for their last two albums; their genre-ignoring folk/indie/rock/pop-punk sound leans heavily on the strength of great melodies and impeccable arrangements, despite the disparate genre commitments of their songs. The five-song Small Tales continues their gleeful frolic through genre expectations. Opener “Down Down Down” is an upbeat folk strummer with horns, jubilant harmonies, and way more sunshine than I expect on a gloomy Monday morning. They follow it up with “For Now,” an ominous, heavy piece that calls to mind Deep Elm labelmates Athletics in its blurring of the modern rock/post-rock divide. Somehow, the two fit next to each other nicely.
While “Down Down Down” is the melodic highlight of the EP, “Settle Down Instead” is the lyrical centerpiece. With a chipper-yet-wistful acoustic ditty reminiscent of the Weepies, the band tells the story of the inevitable fade of friends and interests to time. It propelled me to look up some friends I haven’t heard from in a decade on the Internet, and then I went down a rabbit hole for a while. In other words, it’s a moving tune in more than one way. Two more nice songs fill out the EP, which really feels more like a teaser for something to come than a full meal from Accents (particularly because their two full-lengths are so long and yet so strong). If you’re looking for something short and sweet and fun for your day, check out Accents’ Small Tales.
Is folk a mindset or a sound or both? The answer Accents‘ Tall Tales provides is a giant yes to all. The album is built out of fingerpicked guitar and emotive vocals, expanding from that foundation into genres like folk orchestra (jubilant opener “Hold Me Close”), indie rock (the pensive “Artist in Denial”), and even pop-punk (the impressive “I Wasn’t Looking for You”). Some tracks forsake the folk backdrop and just start out in other genres: the excellent, hopeful ’90s pop of “Reminders”; the anthemic Mumfordy folk of “England Awaits”; the noisy indie-rock-with-horns of “Heart in My Room.”
But even through all these genres, the album holds together excellently; it’s that folk mindset coming through. Accents decided that if you want everything, they can give it to you: guitar rock, orchestration, female vocals, male vocals, hushed songs, brash songs, catchy songs, thoughtful songs, big riffs, the whole nine yards. There’s a pipeline between pop-punk and folk-pop; Accents is the house band for that pipeline. This is a brilliant accomplishment that in lesser hands would be a disjointed mess. Tall Tales is very worth your time.
It’s rare to find a band that plays strictly one genre, but Accents is going for the genre-mashing gold with Growth and Squalor. The base sound is acoustic folk, but they rope in rock, post-rock, acoustic pop and more into their amalgam. There’s a lot going on, but for the most part it comes off well.
It’s easy to name this a folk album, because the far and away best track is “Storms,” an unassuming folk tune with gentle fingerpicking, an easily singable melody, and a simple arrangement. It’s almost certainly going to be on my Top 50 Songs of the Year list; it’s the sort of song that appears from nowhere, grabs you, and then returns you to the rest of the album while you wonder what just happened. The fact that “Storms” is a calm stream in an ocean of unrest that is the rest of the album only makes this impression more stark.
“Storms” doesn’t have any drums in it, and that’s a big reason it sounds different. The drum arrangements in these tunes mark them in interesting ways. Although opener “Divide” is fingerpicked like “Storms,” the acrobatic, tom-heavy drums press the tempo and import gravitas into the tune. “With the Light” introduces syncopated snare hits that bring to mind alt-country drumming. It pretty much sounds like Dave Grohl is behind the kit in the rocked-out “Routine Movements,” while the post-rock build of “Sorrow” is accompanied by a hammering rush of cymbals and bass drum.
The variety that the songwriting styles afford are a strength and weakness here: if you’re really into the pop-rock of “The Fog” or the chamber folk of “Way Out,” you won’t hear much like it for the rest of the album. But if you’re not into it, it won’t trouble you again, and you can get to the traditional folky bliss of “Storms” unimpeded. The album is pro-ADD. However, if you can take a wider look at Growth and Squalor, it does have a nice flow that stretches from the uncertainty of “Divide” to the thrash of “Sorrow” (which is its own kind of certainty).
Growth and Squalor by Accents is a fascinating album by a band with a great number of strengths. Instead of focusing on one strength, they give each its moment in the sun. This creates a unique listening experience, but I’m uncertain it’s one that they can (or even want to) repeat. This is a band jumping out of the starting gate, and doing it well. Here’s to the future of Accents.
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 Onecontains 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 Yearsis 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.
Young Mister’s latest EP, Soft Rock, gives its listener an immediate sense of being rooted in wisdom and nature. The unassuming acoustic instrumentation serves to foster a minimalist sense of letting what is not necessary to life simply fade away. Layered atop the instrumentation, Steven Fiore’s crisp, Ben Gibbard-like vocals allow the lyrics to come to the forefront of the EP, further solidifying its message of simplicity.
“Whispering River” starts the release off beautifully. The slowly strumming guitars calm the listener in preparation for the rest of the relaxing EP. I love the repeated lyric: “I want to build us a home, right on this mountain / Give me an ax and I’ll start collecting the wood,” because it describes something that, to me, is very dreamlike. From that one lyric, I can picture a whole surreal lifestyle, where life is built right off the land with flourishing vegetable gardens and maybe even thriving honey bees. I don’t know about you, but that life sounds fantastic to me. When giving the track a further listen, it seems like the life that is laid out in those lyrics is also the speaker’s dream and not yet his reality. The final lyric– “O Whispering river calling me down, I woke up on the other side”– transitions to the next track wonderfully, as nature awakens us all to reality.
“Imaginary Lines”, although still acoustic, has pepped up its step a bit with its slightly quicker pace. Yet, the lyrics maintain a wise groundedness, as Fiore gifts us with nuggets like “You can’t go back / so keep on straight ahead / All the weight that you stack / inside of remember when’s”. The nature-infused lyrics then culminate to the track’s climax: “Let it go man, you’re just holding on,” repeated three times and then paired with “to something that’s long gone”. This track is a perfect example of the minimalistic sound lending itself to reinforce the minimalist message of letting go of the things we hold too closely in life.
The third track, “Infinite Space,” adjusts its focus from earth to, as the title hints, space. Not only the lyrics, but the whole sound of the track feels more spacey than the other songs; from the warbly interlude mid-track to the ethereal female vocals that echo the hook “somewhere out there in the infinite space”. This first single off the album does not disappoint.
“On the Inside” switches out the guitars for a heavier piano with accents of strings, like the cello and violin. I love that Fiore chose to use the piano as this love-song’s anchor. I say love-song, but there is nothing mushy or gushy about this track. Instead, it’s full of intelligent metaphors, playing off an inside / outside dynamic. The first metaphor engages when Fiore sings “you were a capsule buried in the snow / I found you in the springtime / I want to open it up, I want to know / Let’s see what’s on the inside.” That metaphor then continues with the later lyric: “I can be your summer / you can be my winter / take me to your hidden room.” And everyone’s heart just melted. The next metaphor begins by introducing a “house built with a purpose” (perhaps from the first song) and he continues– “I wanna open up all the doors and see what’s on the outside.” The final metaphor returns to the focus of love, “we are an envelope with a letter written from another time / I wanna hold it up to the sun and see what’s on the inside.”
The final track, “Take Everything” really steps out of the typical instrumentation of the EP, as it opens up with percussive elements and maintains a fuller-sounding instrumentation throughout. One of the most impressive aspects of the EP is how perfectly titled all of the tracks are. Each two-to-three word title echoes the main lyric of each of the songs. So for the final track, “Take Everything” is from the chorus: “We turn to / the clouds for answers that we couldn’t find / they shout back / take everything that you can get and get out of here alive”. It makes so much sense to me that the track that follows up “On the Inside” is one that personifies “the clouds” as the one with the wisdom. Therefore, the most inwardly focused song is quickly followed up by one that focuses on nature truly having the answers.
Young Mister’s EP starts and ends with nature. Nature (“the Whispering River”) is what awoke our speaker in the first track. As we come to the EP’s end, nature (“the clouds”) provides the answers that we can’t find from ourselves, our things, and our loved ones. I get the sense from this album as a whole that true wisdom is knowing that nature is where we find life’s answers, not ourselves. So lounge back, put your feet up, and gain a little wisdom from Young Mister’sSoft Rock.–Krisann Janowitz
1. “Happy Heart (Can Go for Miles)” – The Deltahorse. This impressive tune is sort of to the left of all its referents: there’s some skronking sax, some straight-ahead ’90s techno beats, and some Brit-pop vocal melodies all jostling for precedence. It comes together into a genre-less sort of work that will stick with you.
2. “Trip” – The Venus De Melos. Math-rock is often a technical outworking of hardcore, the patterning of brutal spasms. This is the opposite: this is a major-key, burbling technical blitz that has a chorus that sounds like the soft side of Motion City Soundtrack or Copeland. Check it.
3. “Palms” – Native Other. Like a deconstructed Vampire Weekend, Native Other splits herky-jerky afropunk into parts and reconfigures it with elements of R&B, dream-pop, and math-rock. Whoa.
4. “All My Fake Friends” – Ira Lawrence. Lawrence’s overdriven, hypermanipulated mandolin is back! This tune creates a towering sound that’s hollowed out by an almost complete lack of bass. The resulting folk/indie-pop-esque sound is yearning, physically missing something that is reflected in the disappointment of Lawrence’s voice.
5. “Shut Out the Light (Ft. Peter Silberman)” – Tiny Dinosaurs. This low-slung, low-key electro-indie-pop tune didn’t have enough enigmatically romantic iciness to it, so Julie Jay brought in a member of the Antlers. That fixed it right up.
6. “Ellen” – Steph Sweet. An insistent, burbling, rubbery electric guitar line gives way to a syncopated, ratatat melodic line that I would expect to hear in tunes far more electronic than this one. Organ, glockenspiel, harpsichord(?), and ghostly waves of delay weave in and out of the guitarwork to create a truly unique tune that wouldn’t be out of place in ’70s Fleetwood-style rock or at the end of a modern prog-rock album.
7. “Demitasse” – JJASMINE. Cello, delicate piano melodies, synths that genuinely sound like breaths, and stuttering oscillations transform a dusky electro-pop track into a mystic, foggy, evocative landscape.
8. “Illuminate” – Carly Comando. Glockenspiel accents the bass-heavy, river-run-fast piano keys that create this beautiful track.
9. “La voz del sur (Himmelsrichtungen, nr. 4)” – Juan María Solare. Look around that city corner carefully; you never know what will be there, even in broad daylight. It’s a veritable cornucopia of possibilities, but there’s always a threat hanging above your head–you never know what it could be. And then suddenly, it is.
10. “Ded Mel 25” – Moyamoya. The machine lifted from the ocean floor. it had been trapped there for days, after the ship wrecked. It housed two poor souls, rationing everything they could to perhaps survive. And help had come, lifting their craft slowly yet surely toward the water. Breaking the surface was euphoric and crushing; still floating were remnants of their life’s work. The boat was gone, but they remained. Clenching a fist, one looked at the other and nodded. The hatch popped.
11. “Valley” – Sonic Soundscapes. A determined sojourner trudges across a windswept, wintry landscape. The still air is almost pristinely cold, as if every step he takes endangers the perfect landscape around him. But the landscape keeps going on, and so does the sojourner, neither of their determination fading. The light continues to creep over the mountains. He will get there or die trying.
Darling Valley is the new name of Accents, a band that reveled in combining all sorts of genres into gleeful, occasionally rocket-powered folk-rock. Darling Valley changed some members along with their name, and as a result Crooked Orchardsis less folk-rock and more Lumineers-style folk-pop. But the quality of the work is still elite: the album is stuffed full of tunes with vocal melodies that I can’t say no to, elite instrumental performances, and enough lyrical poignancy to knock the socks off a skeptic or two. It’s the sort of album that makes you remember why folk-pop was fun in the first place, while showing that the genre can support more than skin-deep sentiments.
Darling Valley now sports three vocalists who trade off lead: two women and one man. Their vocal tones and melodic lines are each different; a traditional country female croon (“Moonshine”), a warm indie female coo (“‘Til Morning”), and a brash folk-rock male tenor (“Make It Right”) each get their own moment to shine. But this isn’t three soloists hogging the spotlight from each other, as they routinely back each other up with elegantly constructed harmonies. Songs like “Who You Hold On To” and “You’ll Go Far, Kid” see them sharing the microphone, trading off lines and harmonies at whim. It kept me on my toes in the best of ways, wondering who was going to come in next.
The melodies that they deliver are diverse: from the weary tone and formal structure of “Moonshine” to the yearning power-pop melodies of “Graces” to the giddy folk-pop choruses of “Widows and Revolutionaries,” there’s an array of sounds in their upbeat work. Their quieter tunes also show pleasant variation. The love song “Written on My Bones” is as earnest and winsome as you would hope, while “Monsters” is a ’50s soul/Motown ballad filtered through a three-part folk harmony. By the time “Half Your Life”‘s anthemic vocal line “You won’t / always love me / like you do now” comes around to close out the album, it’s easy to be accustomed to how cool it is, until they up the ante in a way that’s so engaging that I’m not going to spoil it for you. Suffice it to say, they know their voices and melodies are awesome, and they use them to their best ends on this song (and on the whole album).
This is not to malign the instrumental work, though! Their standard folk-pop set up (acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass, drums) is augmented by regular appearances of a brass section. Mumford and Sons could have ruined the horn line for them, but Darling Valley’s arrangements are so impeccably done that the horns feel triumphant instead of trite on “Who You Hold On To” and “You’ll Go Far, Kid.” The genre thefts that they so expertly pulled off in their previous incarnation are more subtle this time: “Who You Hold On To” has its giant closing section amped up by a 1-and-3-4 reggaeton drumbeat (for real), “Moonshine” nods more than a little to classic country, and “Monsters” has those Motown vibes. But even when they’re just playing their major-key brand of folk-pop/folk-rock, they show off guitar chops and careful arranging skills. A great example of this is the complex “Graces,” which has a lot more going on than meets the ear at first.
The lyrics also have a lot more happening than you’d expect: Darling Valley is composed of two married couples, so the lyrics skew toward married-people concerns. Oh, there’s still some dating songs on here (“Moonshine,” “‘Til Morning”), but even the dating songs have the weariness of having been around the block a few times. Then you get to the two different apology songs (“Graces,” “Make it Right”), a song favorably comparing a lover to a song on repeat (“Written on My Bones”), and a song about how getting married is sort of terrifying because it involves potentially giving up your dreams (“Monsters,” which has my vote for realest/rawest lyrical confession of 2016 so far), and you’re not in lyrical Kansas anymore.
These are not songs about infatuation; these are serious, grown-up lyrics about serious, grown-up love. You can still read dating into these words: the coda of the album, the repeated line “You won’t / always love me / like you do now,” can mean “You’re going to leave me someday.” However, in the context of the song, it could also mean “your love for me will change and not be the same as it is right now, because we are married and we’re going to be doing this for a long time and I have no idea what this will look like when we’re still doing this in 50 years and that is scary.” Again, real real. If you’d rather have enthusiastic folk-pop about how life is awesome, there’s always “You’ll Go Far, Kid”; but if you’re looking for something else, that’s here too. (“You’ll Go Far, Kid” is fantastic in its own right: vocally and instrumentally, it’s probably my favorite on the record. Its lyrics are hopeful and uplifting, too. But nothing in it is as emotionally lancing as the delivery of “‘Cus all my endings, they came from good intents” on “Make it Right,” or all of “Monsters.”)
I always hesitate to bring too much of myself to reviewing; I’m not a critic looking into music to write something about myself. But sometimes the connection jumps out: the Crooked Orchards of the title might be marriage itself, a joyous thing full of lovely fruit that doesn’t look exactly like I thought it would. In some ways it’s even more amazing than I thought it would be! And in some ways it’s just weird, sort of askew to what I imagined. I wouldn’t ever change it. But I could go back and tell my pre-married self that there’s just some things you can’t know until you’re there. (Also, the album title could just be really pretty words, like “cellar door,” or something else entirely.) Crooked Orchards is a beautiful album: it delves into matters of depth, taking relationships much farther than the standard album. To do so, they deliver incredible melodies and instrumental arrangements. It’s just excellent. Highly recommended.
Mark Kraus‘ The Story of Everythingis a bold title for an alt-country record with relatively humble sonic aspirations, but not all can be said with giant instrumentation. Kraus relies heavily on his acoustic guitar and his cracked, earnest voice to create the spacious landscapes that he favors. “The Start of Everything” accents these staples with distant pedal steel and gentle percussion to evoke the sense of driving long, dark, empty highways–a feeling which has become the province of slowcore acoustic tunes for me.
However, Kraus does have some full-band arrangements and upbeat tempos up his sleeve (the organ-laden “You and the Boys,” the immensely poignant folk tune “Little Brother”) to mix it up. When push comes to shove, though, it’s the sparser tunes like “The Weekends” and “Put an Old Record On” that let Kraus’ light shine. Instead of shooting for the epic, Kraus revels in the intimate. As a result, The Story of Everything is the sort of record that grows on you as you come to know its contours and shape.
Independent Clauses is a wide-ranging blog, but my home base is gentle, tender, fingerpicked folk. That’s why I’m so jumping-up-and-down excited about Austin Basham, an artist that synthesizes the best elements of David Ramirez and The Tallest Man on Earth (two acts I already love).
Basham’s five-song Linton // Oslo EP shows off a nimble, fragile fingerpicking skill similar to Kristian Matsson’s and an intimate baritone similar to Ramirez’s (“Running“). The production that captures these central elements is immediate–it sounds as if Basham is sitting next to me playing. These three elements together make this EP worth buying, but there’s a wealth of reasons beyond the initial listen.
Basham’s not just a brilliant fingerpicker–eloquent without being gaudy, endearing without being overly simplistic–he’s a solid arranger. These songs feature banjo, horns, strings, whistling and background vocals that float and flutter through the background, providing lift to Basham’s already light songs (“https://soundcloud.com/austin-basham/on-the-hunt”>On the Hunt,” “Running“). He even incorporates flutes into “Find a Way” without stereotyping them. He can’t avoid a good whoa-oh every now and then, but even these biggest of moments seem to fold seamlessly into the vibe. It’s not like a massive riff coming in to take over the song (as in a rock anthem); instead it flows directly out of the things around it. (As it well should be, I think.)
Basham’s vocal performances are another selling point; his voice has a rich quality to it, but he doesn’t just lean on the sound of his voice. He knows how to use it to best emotional effect. He jumps up to a slightly higher range to make a big point; he accents particular lyrics with clipped or drawn-out delivery. The lyrics here are kindhearted love songs, wishing well to a lover (“Lord knows I want you to be whole again,” from “On the Hunt“) and offering affection (“I put my heart in my love, my love for you,” from “Running“). The arrangements and clear-eyed recording style keep the songs from being saccharine, and instead come off as earnest.
I’m frankly blown away by Austin Basham’s Linton // Oslo EP. It’s beautifully written, thoughtfully composed, and excellently recorded. It’s the sort of release that I sort through the hundreds of releases I get yearly to find. If you like acoustic music of any variety (those of the Alexei Murdoch persuasion will be particularly thrilled), Austin Basham should be blasting onto your radar soon–if he hasn’t already. An absolutely gorgeous, knock-out release.
The members of Red Wood Rising have packed a lot of musical references into their 13-song sophomore collection These Fires. While starting from a folk-rock base, they incorporate elements of timeless anthemic rock (opener “Idle Hands“), ’00s emo (the vocals), hot country (“Down the Old Road”), old-timey bluegrass (“Can’t Figure You Out”), and even smooth jazz (“Deep Within the Ground”). Horns appear throughout, most emphatically on the powerhouse tune “Mark of Cain” and the dramatic “Let Me Carry You.” In their kitchen-sink mentality, they echo bands like Accents that don’t let their way with an acoustic guitar get in the way of including any genre that comes to mind.
These Fires is a long album, and so splitting it in half is a meaningful exercise. The first half is brash, loud, and frenetic; the back half is quiet and chill–but still heavy on drama (“Burning Branches” brings back the anguish of Cain from the first half of the record). It’s tunes like the intimate fingerpicking “On Hold” that will hold the most interest for those of the acoustic persuasion; Isaac Herbert’s soaring, rock-oriented voice is tempered and calmed. If you’re into enthusiastic collections of tunes that don’t shy away from a soaring melody, a huge hook, a new idea (or seven), and interesting juxtapositions, go for Red Wood Rising’s These Fires.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.