I got married in November, which means I’ve been celebrating my way through the last few weeks instead of listening to new Christmas music. This means that instead of meaningful reviews, I have a large list of things that you and I should both listen to. I regret nothing. ONWARD!
The Good Shepherd Band, which released a beautiful Christmas album in 2011, are back with a new one entitled All the Bells Shall Ring. If it’s anything like the opener “O Come Let Us Adore Him” (starting off with an Advent hymn; I approve) and the last album, we’re in for big, church-style hymns in oft-triumphant arrangements. Wonderful!
Quirky, reverb-heavy indie-pop band SUNBEARS! offer up a 10-minute EP of Christmas music. It’s sure to be as thoroughly enthusiastic as its name: SUNBEARS! Do CHRISTMAS!
Vintage-style acoustic duo The Singer and the Songwriter are dropping 12 songs (in video form!) for the 12 Days of Christmas. Sounds lovely! Check it at their YouTube.
Zach Winters‘ Monarch is a gentle, calming, delicate album of pristine singer/songwriter work reminiscent of Sleeping at Last. Winters’ modus operandi is to develop a single quiet element into a whole array of sounds without ever crossing the threshold into noisy.
The lack of kit drums throughout much of the album helps greatly in building this lush, soothing sound: strings, voice, two guitars, and auxiliary instruments can still sound intimate if there’s no snares and cymbals marshaling them forward. Instead, the sounds and songs here unfold tenderly, one part after another. This is not a pop album; these songs are not built for instant gratification. Monarch sets the mood for an hour, or a day, or a week.
The high points, insofar as can be picked out from the gorgeous whole, are the swells where Winters exercises his arrangement skills: the title track soars as Winters puts everything he has into the six-minute tune; “Deep Deep” shows his “poppiest” vocal melody, which makes the song sound like a lost Josh Garrels tune. “Meant” is a beautiful love song that calls up the closest Sleeping at Last comparisons, while “Tonight” is one of the warmest tracks I’ve heard in a while. Monarch is a romantic wonder in the literary and literal senses of the world: the emphasis on beauty appeals to those eloquent novels and poetry of yore, while lovers of all types will find a sonic analogue to tender affection. Highly recommended.
Naïm Amor‘s Hear the Walls is also quiet, but in a different way. Hear the Walls is a stark, enticing album that relies on mystery and intrigue. The album’s allure starts with its lyrics: the songs are sung in both English and French, giving some of these songs the mystique of a foreign tongue. The ones that do appear in English draw on lightly reverbed guitar, distant arrangements, and whispered vocals to create their enticing moods.
Lead single “No Way Back” is one of the most full arrangements, incorporating prominent strings and a second guitar into the mix. The result is a tune something like Joseph Arthur or an acoustic Teitur might make: a mature, full-bodied song that just happen to be quiet. Follow-up track “Cherche Dans la Brume” features Andrew Bird-style whistling into a tune that’s far more tense than the small arrangement should be able to create. There are some lovely moments, such as the beautiful closing instrumental “Learning America”; the overall impression, however, is one of intrigue.
Amor’s offerings here are equally as mood-creating as Zach Winter’s, but in a very different way. The quiet tension throughout the release makes me look always just around the corner, waiting for the next element to emerge. If you’re into serious music a la Andrew Bird, Patrick Watson, or Joseph Arthur, Hear the Walls will provide a treat.
I don’t cover a lot of post-hardcore anymore; the high-water mark of my engagement with the genre was proclaiming The Felix Culpa’s Sever Your Roots the album of the year in 2010. Since then, nothing has seemed as exciting as TFC’s work. I’ve thrown a review out here or there, but it’s been scattershot engagement with what’s happening in the genre.
Every now and then a band rousts me out of my slumber; New Tongues is the latest band to do it.
Suite is a roughly 22-minute release broken up into Side A and Side B (or four different songs). It can be read, therefore, as one giant piece (suite), two movements, or four sections. (No one can accuse New Tongues of not being detail-oriented.) If you listen to it as one long song, it is a furious, churning salvo of yelled vocals, gritty guitars, rumbling bass, and powerful drums. It spools out like one particularly long post-rock song, if you view it from a high-enough vantage point.
If you break it up into two movements, Side A is the more aggressive side: there’s a lot more work that seems directly born from the hardcore side of the name. After a short melodic intro, the group launches into pummeling toms and bass drums, hollered vocals, and heavily distorted bass. They keep it coming through the rest of Side A: lots of heavy leads towering over a stomping rhythm section.
Side B has more groove going on, right from the get-go: the distortion is much lower on the bass, the guitar is less arch, and the drums are a lot more even-keeled. Side B is also more distinguishable as two different tunes: “El Condor Pasa”–yes, a post-hardcore version of a Simon and Garfunkel song– mashes its way through the final four minutes of the EP. The song’s melody is set up as a pop song’s would be, so it feels different than the rest of the EP. Even though the structure of the original “El Condor Pasa” isn’t 100% pop business as usual, it is a strikingly different way for New Tongues to end their EP.
New Tongues’ Suite is a powerful, churning post-hardcore album that offers up the sound that I’ve come to expect along with some surprises. They pull off the traditional moves with aplomb and make left-of-center ones seem fairly normal. If you’re into noisy work, I recommend New Tongues to you.
December is a tough month to release music: you’ve got orgs like Paste that have already released their year-end lists by the beginning of the month, blogs that are trying to clear out the files from November (or October, or September) to get all their 2014 commitments done, and listeners who are re-living the year instead of hearing new tunes. You should probably just wait till January. But if you don’t, and your release is really good, you might sneak one in under the radar. Morgan Mecaskey is 100% radar sneaking, because anyone who sounds like Sharon Van Etten fronting The National in an eclectic record store is going to get some good words from this camp.
Lover Less Wild is an adventurous, sultry, enigmatic EP that captured me on first listen. Mecaskey’s husky alto/tenor voice leads the charge on music that skirts boundary labels and ends up firmly in that catch-all camp of “indie rock.” Opener “White Horse” has soaring horns, female back-up vocals, churning guitars, push-tempo drums, and some royal fury in the vocals of Mecaskey herself. It sounds like she mentions the name “Jolene” in the chorus, which would hook her up to a long tradition of artists to find an admirable muse in that name. By the coda of the tune, Mecaskey is hollering “Sometimes I don’t feel like who I really am,” which is amazing, because she sounds completely like herself on that tune.
It’s followed up by three tunes that are a few notches down on the tour-de-force scale (but only a few; they all register). “Fighting Extinction” starts out as a distant, questioning mix between The Walkmen and Radiohead before erupting into some funky bass (?!), calling out some Motown horns, and bringing in a male vocalist for a contentious, exciting duet. It also includes the best saxophone solo this side of M83. Because it’s hard for Morgan Mecaskey to do anything twice, the title track opens with Wurlitzer and distant vocals before unfolding into a jazzy, hip-hop/R&B groove. Right about the time that I start to feel we should call up the Antlers and get them on the same tour, the song explodes into towering guitar walls and distorted bass. “Crushed” starts with nylon-string guitar in Spanish rhythms and ends with a full choir (a real one, not just a gang-vocal offering). In short, there is about as much happening in four songs as you can possibly imagine.
Mecaskey holds this whirlwind tour of music genres and styles together with her voice, which is a versatile, powerful, emotive engine. No matter what arrangement she’s leading, she’s in firm control of what’s happening. Her voice is at home wherever she lands it, which is as much a testament to her attitude and confidence as it is her immense songwriting chops. I don’t care if you’re listening to your favorite album of the year again (I know I am, no hate), you’ve got to check out Morgan Mecaskey’s Lover Less Wild. It will keep you spinning.
James Robinson‘s Start a Fire EP is a charming four-song release. Robinson’s acoustic-centric style fits somewhere between singer/songwriter confessionals and adult-alternative pop sheen, like a more mystical Matt Nathanson or a more polished Damien Rice. This mash-up results in the best of both worlds (instead of the dreaded inverse), with Robinson’s smooth vocals getting all silky around arrangements that have some indie mystery and ambiguity in them. Think less Ed Sheeran crooning and more of that feeling you felt the first time you heard Coldplay’s Parachutes.
The quartet of tunes works nicely together, moving along a high-quality clip without drawing attention to any song in particular. “Demons” has some great bass work and a nice, memorable vocal line; “Holes in the Sky” opens with some nice guitar and vocals that evoke Jason Mraz; “Smoke & Ashes” is the most tender of the collection. But it’s the title track that takes high marks here: its polished arrangement frames Robinson’s voice perfectly, making this an impeccably done song that you’ll be humming for a while. If you’re looking for some gentle singer/songwriter fare with some mystery in it, go for James Robinson.
Any discussion of Angelo De Augustine‘s Spirals of Silence must be prefaced by this information: de Augustine sounds, musically, vocally, and even lyrically, like Elliott Smith mashed up with Nick Drake. For many people, this is enough to send them running in its direction. I forwarded this to the resident Smith fan in my life and was promptly given compliments on my character after his first listen. It’s a hit.
But it’s not just that it sounds like Smith: the songs are incredibly well-done. de Augustine has the fingerpicking/breathy vocals/tape hiss thing down, but the things he chooses to fingerpick are beautiful, contemplative, melodic works that move sprightly along. Lead single “Old Hope” is a perfect example of this, as de Augustine whispers his way across a traveling, bouncy-yet-not-cheesy guitar line. (Side note: because this song sounds like Josh Radin, I realized that I’d never noticed how much Elliott Smith influenced Josh Radin.) Other highlights include the oddly heartbreaking “Married Mother,” the tender “I Spend Days,” and the intriguing “You Open to the Idea.”
I could say more about Spirals of Silence, but I think I’ve said all I need to in order to get you to listen to this or not. Viva Angelo de Augustine, please and thank you.
Even though I love big, towering achievements of heavily orchestrated arrangement, in my heart I am most partial to singer/songwriters who sit down with one instrument (maybe two, harmonica counts) and sing their song. Wolfcryer, aka Matt Baumann, has been cranking out a stream of guitar/vocals or banjo/vocals EPs since 2013 that have been uniformly fantastic. His last offering in this set of intimate, The Prospect of Wind, is no different. Baumann’s husky baritone meshes with his full chord strums and occasional harmonica swoop to create humble, dignified, powerful tunes a la old school Joe Pug.
Each of the 8 tunes on the album have their own merits, so its nigh on impossible to single one out as the highlight. “Clay and Stone” shows off how he can keep a complex lyrical line going while strumming furiously; “Little People” shows off his troubadour storytelling. “The War” kicks off the album with a protest tune. But it truly is the title track that takes the cake: Baumann’s impassioned vocals, emotive banjo strumming (if you don’t know how that works, just listen), and memorable chorus keep this one on loop in my mind. If you want to catch WolfCryer before the train leaves the station, this is the last whistle. It’s on to bigger and better things from here. Highly recommended.
I just got married, so it’s profoundly dissonant listening to break-up songs. It’s even more odd when the breakup songs form an impressively heartrending album. Kite Flying Robot‘s Magic and Mystery starts out as a arpeggiator-heavy dance-pop album, but slowly unfolds into a narrative of how adults deal with (yet another) breakup. KFR’s synth-pop relies on staccato, separated synths instead of the huge swaths of noise that are en vogue in synthpop right now. This creates a sound that is inspired by the ’80s but also sounds other. References like Prince and ELO floated through my head as I listened; whether or not they’re accurate, the sound of this album isn’t business as usual.
Many songs here are fun and danceable (“Bad Girl,” “Criminal Supervixen,” “Belong to the Beautiful”), but the moments where KFR turns away from the club and gets introspective are surprisingly, almost uncomfortably raw in their musings. The title track and “So Goodbye” feature beautiful instances of songwriting, incisive turns of lyricism, and remarkably emotive vocal performances. Nikolas Thompson knows exactly how to control the phrasing of his lyrics and the delivery of those phrases throughout the album; when he uses those elements to pull heartstrings, the results are impressive. In that way, he’s not so different from Josh Ritter, and Magic and Mystery isn’t too far from The Beast in Its Tracks: an album of impressive songwriting trying to sort through the wreckage of a broken relationship in a dignified, mature, honest way. Kite Flying Robot has a lot going for it on Magic and Mystery; just, uh, keep your tissues handy.
Speak, Memory‘s Value to Survival is a 20-minute EP of punk rock-influenced post-rock; it’s the sort of work that Deep Elm Records would have been all about in the early 2000s. The tension of heavily rhythmic drums and melodic lead guitar lines will make fans of Mare Vitalis-era Appleseed Cast grin in recognition.
The trio doesn’t ever get abstractly mathy in its ambitions: where the work is technical, it is complex for a songwriting reason. The center of closer “Blue Jacarandas. Lavender Skies.” is a powerfully emotive piece of music as well as an intricate one; “Splenetic” is held together by solid bass guitar work and a warm, burbling guitar tone that keeps away from the cold brittleness of some math-rock runs. This may be anchored by guitar acrobatics, but they’re of the flowing and beautiful type–not the brute force, shock-and-awe style. It also helps that all but one of the six tracks falls under four minutes, and two fall under three. This trio knows how to hit a tune, work their magic, and then get out before it gets repetitive. If you’re more into snappy motions than slow-building crescendoes, the type of post-rock that Speak, Memory plays will excite you.
The first two 500 Miles to Memphis releases I reviewed reveled in their country-punk genre elements. Fiddle, pedal steel, and frantic tempos all clashed and meshed and bashed and had a party. In Stand There and Bleed, the band has matured into itself, making fewer overt gestures to the genres they’re inhabiting or bending. This results in expert songwriting that is both incredibly situated and widely diverse.
First things first: frontman and songwriter Ryan Malott has expanded his lyrical repertoire. Sure, there are still a number of collapsed-or-collapsing relationship tunes on this record (including one simply titled “Alone”), but “Medication” is a touring song, “You’ll Get Around” is a song of advice to a sister, and “Takes Some Time” is – get this – almost a love song. If there’s change, it starts at the root, and the root of 500 Miles to Memphis is its lyrics.
From there, the sound has gotten more comfortable in places and expanded in others. “Medication” still falls squarely in the country-punk genre, with supercharged tempos, galloping drums, and wild lead guitar meeting for an excellent take on the country-punk genre. “How Would I Know” is one of the most torrential salvos of punk anger and energy I’ve heard 500MTM release–there are references to the chugga-chugga of hardcore punk in the bridge. It all sounds supremely assured: nothing is out of place in these tunes, but nothing sounds overpolished either.
The polish is saved for a later collection of tunes. In the same way that Blink-182 tempered some of their snottiness for the power-pop gems of their self-titled record, Malott has channeled his pop inclinations into a trio of tunes: “Bethel, OH,” “Easy Come & Easy Go,” and “Takes Some Time.” “Bethel, OH” is a gleeful rumination on the follies and foibles of youth steered by an effervescent, memorable chorus. The ’80s guitar-pop vibes of “Easy Come & Easy Go” make me think of Cheap Trick at its finest, while the staccato opening riff of “Takes Some Time” pleasantly shocked me in its relationship to those of classic rock mainstays Styx. (As a person who has purposefully attended a latter-day Styx concert, this is a positive reference, I swear.) The band rocks along perfectly in each of these tunes, not sounding out of their element in the least.
That’s not even the most compelling switcheroo the listener is privy to on the record: the last quarter of the record consists of three straight-up country tunes. “You’ll Get Around” is touching in its earnest pleas for a sister to make something of her life, sold beautifully by Malott’s excellent vocal performance and the band’s striking ease at back-porch banjo-pickin’. “Easy Way Out” is more ominous in tone, but it’s perhaps even more impressive in its arrangment. But the piece de resistance of their roots revival is the six-minute “Alone,” which starts off as a swooning lullaby before building to a pounding, towering, full-band crescendo full of frantic drums, searing organ, and overall band theatrics. If it’s not the closer of the live show, it totally should be. It doesn’t beat the 9-minute “Everybody Needs an Enemy” off We’ve Built Up to NOTHING in scope, but it trounces it in terms of impression.
Stand There and Bleed is, to me, an unlikely title for this record–especially considering that there is no title track. The lyrics do have more sturdiness to them, more recognition of the realities of pain and more appreciation for the joys of life. But the music covers so much ground that there is no time to stand still as a band or a listener. Stand There may not be the release that’s heaviest on the country-punk genre markers, but as a musical effort, it’s an impressive, diverse, striking record. Highly recommended.
Saying that Winna by Tara Fuki is difficult to explain is a bit of an understatement. Each of the songs on the album are written for two cellos and two female voices, with influences ranging from classical minimalism to Eastern European folk songs to post-rock to Jonsi-style alt-pop. If that wasn’t enough, the lyrics are in Czech. All this comes together for this American listener to become something of an otherworldly missive: Winna sounds vaguely like things I understand, but mostly it sounds beautiful in a voice that no one had previously tried to speak to me.
There’s a lot of pizzicato plucking throughout the album, both on its own and as a contrast to flowing counterpoint. Sometimes the cellos are intertwined in a complex way; sometimes they compliment each other instead of playing off each other. At no point does the sound get cluttered; the duo have orchestrated their duets masterfully to make the sound consistent and pure. The band has previously used electronics to augment the sound, but with the exception of some wind chimes in “W twojej glowie,” they are totally acoustic on the album. The most complexity of the whole album comes in the finale of that tune, when both cellos, both vocalists and the chimes are going in opposite directions. It’s exciting, and it feels fresh.
“Lecimy” and “Dopis” are closest to traditional indie-pop song structures; it’s easy to imagine the perky-yet-restrained “Dopis” as a song that could fit in Regina Spektor wheelhouse. “Anna” starts off with a traditional-sounding folk vocal melody, then puts a yearning, keening vocal counterpoint over it. The song develops with some dramatic, scraping percussive work on the cellos, remaining a heavily vocal piece. It’s similar to things Julianna Barwick would create. The nine-minute “Zavrat” imposes the most post-rock influences, as the most production happens in this tune (reverb, found sound of rain, perhaps even some cello overdubs or incredibly complex individual performances). Its furious tone is internally consistent, and manages to fit in the context of the album.
Winna is an amazing album that confounds me with its beauty. It sounds like little I’ve ever heard before, which is a big compliment from a person who listens to music all the time. It’s a really powerful work that can be returned to over and over. If you’re into adventurous, experimental work that doesn’t delve into noise or abstract chord mashing, Tara Fuki should be on your shortlist.
It’s a dreary, sleet-filled day here in North Carolina. I’m holed up writing end-of-semester papers and listening to Seer Group‘s EP Love Me Back. Seer Group would not necessarily seem the best fit for an icy, unforgiving day, since their perky, quirky electro-pop verges more on the abstract MGMT side than the stark, minimalist trip-hop side.
But there are connections: the gorgeous, flowing, 7-minute “To My Surprise” features both rhythmically mesmerizing vocals from Elijah Wyman and a swirling, instrumental string coda. It’s still very much electro-pop, what with the clicking/clattering beats and the astronomy-influenced synth burbles, but there’s a trumpet in that mix. There’s some real warmth amidst the swirling tune. It’s keepin’ me warm over here. “Just Wait a Little Bit” also appeals to that cinematic, swoon-worthy, fleshed-out sort of electronic ideal.
Even though Seer Group remains firmly committed to artsy, abstract weirdness, there are some genuinely hypnotic, clubby tunes going on here. “Wind” might not have a four-on-the-floor beat, but the marimba-esque keys play off the pulsing, grinding beat to create that sort of slow-motion banger that you might find in a dimly-lit club. The title track is actually pretty close to a mid-tempo club jam without any verbal gymnastics on this part: hit it up. It sounds right. “Kicking In” includes some increasingly frantic rapping that gives the mid-tempo tune a wild, crazy feel. It’s a pretty wide range of sounds Jason Rozen and co. cover here.
If you’re into artsy electro, experimental hip-hop, or unclassifiable weirdness, Seer Group latest collection of jams will pique your interest for sure. Big ups.
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.
Silences‘ Sister Snow EP builds on last year’s debut of delicate, intricate acoustic indie. In these four tunes, the five-piece from Northern Ireland captures an intimacy that is rarely heard in singer/songwriters doing everything on their own–much less with a big outfit.
The songs have the internal strength of Parachutes-era Coldplay tunes: the sparse arrangments lock together tightly to create striking moods and earnest swells of emotion. It helps that tunes like “Stones” and “Sister Snow” have inflections of early Sigur Ros’ icy-yet-gentle guitar work, lending some grit and gravity to the otherwise ethereal tunes. “Cops and Robbers” is the outlier among the set, sounding more like a warm, hummable adult alternative tune than an indie construction. It’s still quite beautiful; it shows their diversity well. Silences’ second EP shows them in full flower, making beautiful, complex, involving work that will both calm and excite.
Peter Galperin‘s 2013 album A Disposable Life skewered materialism in a boffo bossa nova style that supported the parody of the lyrics. His new EP Just Might Get It Right pulls a hard 180 in lyrical quality and musical content: it’s an uncategorizable EP about lost love with folk, classic-rock, zydeco, and bossa nova influences.
Galperin’s bossa nova background hasn’t entirely disappeared, as these five tunes have a sprightly spring in their step that points to a quirkier, happier past. The rhythms in “Angel Tonight” and “Hate to Admit It” point prominently toward Galperin’s unusual influences, creating infectious tunes that call to mind the genre mashups that made Paul Simon’s Graceland such a brilliant piece of work. Accordion plays prominently in these tunes (like “Not a Day Goes By”), which also references Graceland, and it gives the tunes another bouncy element beyond the rhythms.
The lyrics aren’t as pointed and powerful as in his previous work, but Galperin sounds perhaps more comfortable delivering them than he did before. His vocal delivery is an assured tenor that can ratchet up in Springsteen-esque intensity (“Not a Day Goes By”) or deliver a quiet speak-sing (“Hate to Admit It”). Just when you think you know what to expect, another curveball gets thrown. It’s pretty impressive.
Galperin’s Just Might Get It Right is a complex, unique work built out of an unusual variety of influences. If you’re into adventurous, challenging work, Peter Galperin should be on your playlists right now.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.