What does environmental activism have to do with indie folk music? For Paul Doffing and his latest album, Songs from the (quaking) Heart, the two are inseparable. Songs from the (quaking) Heart chronicles Doffing’s experience bicycling 7,000 miles around the United States and performing shows at places like houses, libraries and farms. The album combines unadorned instrumentation with raw storytelling lyrics that make you forget all of life’s worries as you enter into a world of hope and simplicity.
Throughout the album, the instrumentation is plain and simple: acoustic guitar. Yet what Doffing does with the guitar is anything but simple. Acoustic guitar strumming (“Reason”) or intricate fingerpicking (“Sure Doesn’t Matter Any More”) beautifully begin each track off the album; Doffing’s voice typically follows after a few measures. A slight deviation, “New Day Dawning” begins first with birds chirping–fitting for the title and optimistic feel of the song–then the guitar enters and the voice enters.
The two instrumental tracks (“The Drifter,” “(No Path Up) Cold Mountain”) are even larger exceptions to that rule. In both songs, Doffing tells the story through the fingerpicking done on his guitar instead of with lyrics. The title “The Drifter” gives away a bit of the storyline, but it’s as if each pluck of the guitar tells us a different aspect about this “Drifter.” Specifically in the chorus, lower register notes seem to remind the listener that even though some parts of the Drifter’s life are good, there does remain a level of drudgery in the end. Some plucking is done in the lower register of the acoustic, while other plucks venture to higher notes, appearing slightly more hopeful. “(No Path Up) Cold Mountain” tells a very different, more pleasantly adventurous story with its guitar melodies and plucking rhythms. It’s really amazing how Doffing tells us stories through an instrument, no lyrics needed.
Two tracks off Songs from the (quaking) Heart tell stories with instruments; the rest do it with lyrics. Generally, Doffing’s voice is crisp and easily understood, making it easier for the listener to catch all of the lyrics and the stories they tell. For example, “The Legend of Mick Dodge” tells the titular story through Doffing’s reverent perspective. The exception is found in “Reason,” where Doffing’s voice is synthesized, so it’s more difficult to hear the lyrics.
“Sure Doesn’t Matter Anymore” stands out in the tone of the story that Doffing tells us. Although some details are left out, in this song I thought of the brilliant “based on a true story” book/movie Into The Wild. Picture those scenes where Chris McCandless begins to get lonely, and his latest kill starts to spoil with a meat-worm infestation. This is where Chris begins to truly learn that living off the land in Alaska is not what will fix all of life’s problems. “Sure Doesn’t Matter Anymore” speaks into that situation and solemnly explains that “Nothing that we cling to ever sets us free.” No offense, Eddie Vedder, but I think Songs from the (quaking) heart should have totally been the movie score for Into The Wild.
On the other end of the emotional spectrum, “New Day Dawning” and “Slow I Go” tell much happier stories. “New Day Dawning” narrates those days where you wake up, “the sun is shining down on me” and you feel “so free.” Similarly, “Slow I Go” begins as a sort of self-pep talk, and, as the multiple voices enter in, the hope is extended to all. This then culminates in the outro repetition of the phrase, “We’ll change the world.” Listen to “Slow I Go” and hear the notes of hope for yourself.
Songs from the (quaking) heart makes me want to grab a journal and head to the woods to write poetry. Paul Doffing’s music is not only inspirational, but his life is too. You can even read his bicyling/music tour blog and learn the true stories behind Doffing’s contemplative songs. Paul Doffing and his Songs from the (quaking) heart is one of the few albums that truly provokes me to create art as a response to art. I encourage you to do the same. —Krisann Janowitz
I have thoroughly enjoyed my first year writing reviews for Independent Clauses and discovering new music. The following is a list of my top five releases from what I have reviewed this year, including both full length albums and EPs. It was difficult to choose a top five since I have loved every artist I wrote about, but here are a few of my favorites.
Paul Doffing – Songs from the (quaking) Heart(Review) Paul Doffing’s heartfelt release is, simply put, beautiful. As soon as I turn the album on, I feel so deeply that it almost brings me to tears every time. Not only the lyrics but the very instrumentation of Songs from the (quaking) heart exude raw emotion. Every time I listen, the album inspires me to go out to nature and write or paint.
Jeremy Bass – New York in Spring (Review) This EP is quite a unique cup of tea, and I love it. Bass’ New York in Spring oozes the kind of whimsy that can brighten any day. My favorite track from the EP, “Work,” showcases the album’s bossa nova flair while containing a string of brilliantly crafted lyrics that sardonically comment on our relationship with the inevitable: work.
The Lowest Pair- The Sacred Heart Sessions(Review) I remember the days when anything close to country music was something I did not listen to. Now, I find myself giddy over minimalist bluegrass album The Sacred Heart Sessions. Kendl Winter and Palmer T. Lee might be one of the best vocal pairings I have ever heard.
Tidelands- Old Mill Park(Review) This EP also effortlessly interweaves both male and female vocals throughout. Yet, the unique mix of classical and rock instrumentation is really what makes this collection stand out. Every song has a distinctly different sound from the next. I shared a few of these tracks with my picky husband, and he loved them all.
Thayer Sarrano- Shaky(Review) Hauntingly beautiful really is the best phrase to describe this album. This is yet another album that makes me feel deeply just from the instrumentation. Sarrano’s vocals and lyrics leave me truly awed. Shaky’s southern gothic sound makes me a little bit uncomfortable in the best way; in my opinion, the best art does.–Krisann Janowitz
If I were to describe Jenny Ritter’s breakout albumRaised by Wolvesin one word, it would have to be layering. Over and over again, I kept noticing the many magnificent layers to her music–the vocal, instrumental, and lyrical layering.
Let me begin by first painting a portrait of Jenny Ritter’s voice. To begin, think of Paramore’s Hayley Williams’ voice, particularly in her more delicate tracks, such as “The Only Exception.” The strong softness of Hayley Williams’ voice in those quieter songs are much like Jenny Ritter’s voice. Now add a more motherly, storytelling quality similar to many female ‘90s country artists, minus the country twang. There you have it–a beautiful sopranic voice that maintains both sweetness and strength. Many of the songs build off her crisp voice. Others have additional harmony vocals which serve to add depth (“A History of Happiness,” “Turn Your Thoughts”).
The instrumentation of Raised by Wolves is what made me fall in love with the album. There is so much instrumental layering, I almost can’t handle how amazing it is. Take “Turn Your Thoughts,” for example. In it, Ritter provides the vocal melody, while Keenan Lawler joins in to serve as the vocal harmony. The instruments can be described in those terms as well. “Turn Your Thoughts” opens up with the drums and acoustic guitar providing the melody. The electric guitar, fiddle, steel guitar, and banjo all fill out the sound through adding harmony. Sometimes this occured in the form of awesome breakout solos such as seen with the fiddle and electric guitar. The instrumentation is so great that it can stand all on its own, as proved by the instrumental track “Slide Mountain.” “Slide Mountain” has a slightly darker sound from the rest of the album because of the addition of the double bass, which adds a lot of depth to the sound. The instrumental layering creates a very full sound for all of the tracks on the album.
Jenny Ritter’s lyrics remind me of someone I once reviewed, Paul Doffing. Both artists focus heavily on nature and mankind’s relationship with nature. Take the single “Wolf Wife”: Ritter’s lyrics speak more depth than what is on the surface. She uses this metaphor of being a “wolf wife” because she was “raised by wolves,” yet there seems to be a larger commentary about family and societal expectations underneath the nature-focused lyrics.
“Remember the Life” is a beautiful song, and the lyrics are particularly majestic. At the song’s chorus, Ritter posits the first time around that “we should go out and see the stars right now.” The second time she says, “we should go out on the sea right now.” The third time she replaces the stars and sea with, “on the hill right now.” Each time the lyrics are followed up by “remember the life that we want to live.” Experiencing nature in a real way has a tendency to revitalize our life and remind us what it is really about.
In Raised by Wolves, Jenny Ritter reminds what life is all about– beauty.–Krisann Janowitz
1. “We Are on the Hill” – Montoya. A fist-pumping indie-dance-rock anthem, complete with anthemic slogan to yell (which makes no sense out of context). I love the piano in this track.
2. “My Fortune” – Sameblod. I tried writing about this sunshiny dance-pop track, but it ended up with this anyway: Ah, what do I know. Just turn it up in your car.
3. “Ran Ran Run” – Pavo Pavo. Half languid, swirly San Fran indie-pop, half unassuming four-on-the-floor Mates of State-style indie-dance thumper. It works surprisingly well for the diversity.
4. “Por Cima” – Flavia Coelho. I don’t know, man, sometimes I just need some Brazilian bossa nova/rap funkiness in my life. I also enjoy not being able to understand the words or the subtitles on this track. Sometimes it’s nice to just sit back and not worry about it.
5. “We Will Be Palm” – Panda Kid. If you’re into Burger Records’ lo-fi, upbeat rock, you’ll love Panda Kid’s fuzzed-out, reverb-heavy, surf-influenced pop-rock.
6. “Nervous Breakthrough” – Bloodplums. Neuroses! Anti-authoritarianism! Politics! Religion! Big guitars! Snarling vocals! Does it get more pop-punk than this? Come and get it.
7. “High” – Puzzlecuts. Here’s some fun Post-Pavement slacker rock that combines relaxed melodies, laid-back arrangements and noisy guitars. It rambles and shambles along, cheerfully rocking.
8. “Golden Rat” – Cusses. I dare you to listen to that open guitar riff and not be totally sucked into this stomping rock song. That’s not even including the frantic, wild vocals of their female lead singer. Dynamite in a bottle. (Band is not to be confused with CURXES or Swearin’ despite (one definition of) their name–but man wouldn’t that make a great trio tour?)
9. “Eyes Lie” – Sebastian Brkic. I don’t know what to call minor-key rock that isn’t aggressive. Brkic’s new tune isn’t chill, but it’s also not aggro–it lives somewhere between cerebral and dreamy, somewhere between marching and swaying.
10. “No Justice” – Astronauts, Etc. I’ve been getting real into white-boy slow jamz recently, and this track has everything I’m looking for: a sensuous vibe created by mellow keys, smooth falsetto, unobtrusive percussion, and lithe bass. It’s not funky or aggressive, but it’s got movement and energy. It’s a tough balance to strike, but this track nails it.
11. “Good Will Rise” – Amber Edgar. This earnest acoustic tune knocked me back on my heels. The strings and trumpet in this tune don’t make the sound more expansive–they somehow make it more intimate. This is a powerful statement, musically and lyrically.
12. “Slow I Go” – Paul Doffing. This gentle, warm, optimistic fingerpicked acoustic tune calls up the kindest moments of James Taylor, which is high praise from over here.
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.