Every time that someone sends me western swing, I want to write this opening paragraph again. Let’s just say I love this genre, not many other people my age do, and I feel like I have to do my part to help it out whenever I can. Pearls Mahone‘s Echoes from the Prairie is about as squarely planted in Western Swing as you can possibly be, which means that there’s sassy vocals, perky arrangements, and enough good vibes to go around two or three times. It’s also a lot of fun, regardless of if you’re into the genre or not.
So, just by being a western swing band, Mahone is calculated to get a high score from me. Beyond that, she’s an incredible artist: her voice is powerful and evocative and her choice of songs is brilliant. (Bonus: She’s got a song about my home state of Oklahoma.) Mahone’s voice is a confident alto that can be used a variety of ways: she can pull off vulnerable, sultry, sassy, and sentimental. “Saint & Sinner” also captures in a title the two sides of the coin that she espouses lyrically here: the brash “I Had Someone Else…” (“before I had you / and I’ll have someone after you’re gone”) and materialistic “Flash Your Diamonds” contrast with more tender work, like the nostalgic “Oklahoma Hills” and Billie Holliday’s “All of Me.”
The clutch of tunes at the end of the record is particularly entrancing: the last few start off with a thrilling “St. James Infirmary” and a earnest-in-sound “Old Time Religion” (which is elsewhere known as “I’ve Got That Old Time Religion,” a different song than the traditional “Old Time Religion,” but we’re getting into the weeds now). A short a capella version of “Go to Sleep Little Baby” (which you may know from O Brother Where Art Thou) comes next. Then Mahone seals the deal with a sparse, beautiful version of Tom Waits’ “Long Way Home,” one of my favorite tunes.
Mahone is thoroughly vintage in sound and immage (even evoking vintage typography and photography on her album cover), but she’s crafted an album of tunes that are perky, enthusiastic, and charming. If I had my way, everybody would listen to this and fall in love with Western swing. But until that great (hypothetical) day, we have a remarkable album to enjoy in Echoes from the Prairie.
The Weather Machine‘s self-titled record was a marvel powered by inventive folk-inspired acoustic songwriting, deft lyrics, and an earnest DIY sheen. The “hyper-literate story songs and Dylan-esque prophetic jams” of their 2013 release are still present in Peach, but they’re tucked inside a new-found appreciation for Americana rock. Peach‘s focus is squarely on the sounds that The Weather Machine is able to wring from a well-rounded quintet, and this results in new charms.
But before I start detailing the changes, let me not get too carried away. Peach is still The Weather Machine’s doing. The ominous “Lilium” is right there with “Skeleton Jack” and “Alexei Mikhail.” The jaunty folk of “Some Evenings Are for Dancing” has the same wonderful tension between wry and passionate that characterized so much of their previous release. Okay, so, there’s a little more electric guitar, and it’s not “So, what exactly does it say?” (To paraphrase the genius’ refrain: “But what is?”) There’s still enough acoustic work to appease fans of that which was–and I am one of them.
So, about that electric guitar. The Weather Machine is now very firmly a rock band (among other things), because you can’t write a Springsteen-esque rock song as good as “Wannabe Cowboys” and not at least throw -rock on the end of your genre. There’s a cello* swooping its way through the track, but it’s not a folk-rock tune in the same way that The Low Anthem occasionally makes folk-rock. This is not a rocked-out folk tune: this is a rock song that has some folk instruments in it. The distinction is important for tunes like the super-fun “As Long as We Get Along,” because there’s more screamin’ guitar in that tune than you could possibly expect from a folk outfit. But it still has cello running all through it. It’s a tension–something The Weather Machine is good at.
Even though tension is their forte, they’re making steps toward integration: “Wild West Coast” and “How to Get to Roseburg” are the minor and major key exemplars, respectively, of melding the ideals and instrumentaion of folk and rock on this record. “Wild West Coast” is a low-slung tune that calls up some “The National lost in Arizona” thoughts, while “Roseburg” fuses hyperactive drums and insistent bass to a string-led hoedown stomp.
But right when you think you’ve got them figured out, the title track includes feathery arpeggiators, dreamy bossa nova vibes, and prominent acoustic fingerpicking in a track that sounds like Braids ft. Josh Ritter. (And what a track that would be.) “Breakup Song” and “MC vs. The Digital Age” are as theatrical as a good show tune should be. Things are happening on this record, y’all.
Peach is a record that expands on the template set out by their self-titled record, pushing them in all sorts of directions. Purists need not apply, but those who are interested in what else creative minds* have up their sleeves will enjoy the record immensely.
*correction: originally written as “violin.” It’s way high, though.
**correction: originally written as “the minds that set steel drums in a folk tune.” Apparently the thing that sounds like steel drums is also a cello. I’m as surprised as you are.
So even in this packed musical world, some band names have slipped through the cracks. Thus New York duo Frog have come to have a four-letter name, kind of like when The Killers found out that no one had taken that band name. (And really, of all the bands in the world, the one led by Brandon Flowers probably shouldn’t have been the one to get the name The Killers.)
But Frog fits their name a little better: “All Dogs Go to Heaven” starts out with the sound of swamp fauna (crickets, cicadas, even a frog or two, I would guess). Their gentle guitar strum comes in over the found sound, creating a pastoral pastiche. The summer sounds give way to drums that lead the listener through some loopy-in-the-best-way guitar pop. “All Dogs Go to Heaven” is thus a deeply enjoyable track, a perfect tune to drive or walk to.
The video for “All Dogs” echoes the themes of motion that I head: a train ride is the main image throughout the piece. I’m usually not into old video montages, but this one fits the nature of the song pretty perfectly. Sometimes a perfect connection between image and sound can transcend the methods used, and such is the case here.
The main character stumbles through a train car as Dan Bateman mumbles a rapidfire collection of words, while the smash-cut transitions in the song fit perfectly with the video transitions. “All Dogs” isn’t the sort of video I usually feature, but it’s the sort of video that fits exactly with the song it’s supporting. May we all be so lucky.
“All Dogs Go to Heaven” is the opening track off Kind of Blah, which comes out May 25th on Audio AntiHero Records (Pre-order). You can hear the single “Judy Garland” here.
Have you ever listened to The XX? If not, it’s two steamy voices, one male and one female, alongside minimalist instrumentation. Flavor The XX with bluegrass/country twang and instrumentation, and you have The Lowest Pair. Their recently released The Sacred Heart Sessions highlights Kendl Winter and Palmer T. Lee’s sultry voices through a minimalist banjo/guitar arrangement in a truly beautiful way.
Listening to The Lowest Pair is such a pleasurable experience. Kendl’s voice is sweet and innocent, as highlighted by singles like “Rosie.” Palmer’s voice has more of a soulful sound, with power behind it. The combination of Kendl’s angelic voice with Palmer’s more earthy one come together to create an almost heavenly sound. The Sacred Heart Session rests mainly on their beautiful vocal combination, much like The XX. Yet the unique addition of their bluegrass flavor sets them apart from other minimalist bands.
Even though The Lowest Pair could easily be an a cappella group, the instruments they chose in no way take away from the vocals. The banjo and guitar make up their whole instrumentation, trading off song to song. Some songs are just accompanied by the banjo, emphasizing the beautiful country twang existing in their voices. Other songs like the more upbeat “Fourth Times a Charm” have both a guitar and banjo. “Fourth Times a Charm” sounds particularly bluegrass with the chorus made entirely up of the phrase yik a dink a do/day.
The Lowest pair’s sweet and sultry vocals paired with their minimalist bluegrass instrumentation all come together to create a standout sophomore album. The Sacred Heart Sessions is out now!
As I’ve been listening to Nettles‘ work (and relistening; Locust Avenue is a grower), one phrase keeps impressing itself upon me: “ominous flutes.” Sometimes the adjective varies, as “violent,” “dissonant,” and “eerie” have come to mind as well. Whichever modifier you choose, it’s an odd pairing with the word “flute.” But the stark contrast of the term could be a synecdoche of the album: this is a slow, rolling, pastoral album in the vein of Songs:Ohia, but it’s also a heavily-arranged album with complex textures that border on the chaotic.
You don’t hit the flutes right away: opener “Annuals” actually has more in common with Nick Drake than Jason Molina, as the fingerpicking guitar style is much more in line with the former than the latter. Guion Pratt’s straight-forward, earnest timbre calls up the Magnolia Electric Co. singer, however. “Brando” has some choppy strum that is reminiscent of Molina; paired with the vocals, there’s a strong connection to slow-core style (even though the song is fast). And, yes, the flutes come in. They’re not as ominous as they will be, but they show up. The album unfolds: it doesn’t throw everything at you at once.
It’s “Body Inside Out” where the flutes really start to work their magic. The tune is a darker one than the first two: still pastoral in its delicate piano and roving melodic lines, but with some darkness creeping in around the corners. By the middle, the flutes, generally used for airy support, are giving me the heeby-jeebies. That tension is real. It’s the sort of thing that draws you in.
The title track most clearly takes up the slowcore motifs, spinning out a patient, pause-filled song. Again, the tension between beauty and ominousness is present throughout, drawing me in. This time it’s not flutes (they are there!), but the back-and-forth between the guitar and the silence that punctuates. By the end of the seven-minute track, the guitar, vocals, percussion and flutes all come together to create the sort of quiet roar that comes of being fully involved in a quiet piece of music.
The rest of the album follows in suit: acoustic guitar, flute, and occasional other contributing instruments deliver tunes that range from well-developed, fully-arranged pieces (“The Quarry,” “Rogue Body”) to eerie minor-key pieces (“The Knot”) to slow-burners (“Pyramid of Skulls”). Pratt’s voice is a calming guide through the landscapes he builds, and the overall results are unique and interesting. Locust Avenue is an album that requires multiple listens, but if you give it the time it asks for, it will show you treasures.
There is no one quite like Aly Spaltro, and there is nothing quite like After. Spaltro burst on the scene as Lady Lamb the Beekeeper with with the almost overwhelmingly brilliant mindbender Ripely Pine in 2013. Two years later, she’s returned with a shorter name (Lady Lamb) and a new album that tightens up her already incredibly fine-tuned indie rock. After is a musical and lyrical powerhouse that should establish her as a talent with enough ideas to keep going for the long term.
It’s reductive to label After a breakup album, but the title invites the reference. Tunes like “Vena Cava” and “Batter” reference a split off-handedly or obliquely, while “Milk Duds” lays out the loss in raw detail. But it’s not the process of breaking up that is documented; instead, After is an accounting of the emotions that appear or return after the end of a relationship. It’s an emotional exploration of the territory that Josh Ritter’s post-divorce album The Beast in Its Tracks accounted for in concrete, physical spaces. There are multiple references to the tiny details of life that she has suddenly noticed: singles “Spat Out Spit” and “Billions of Eyes” both discuss train rides and their attendant emotional revelations; hair braids, shoes, and all manner of animals are minor characters; food is a constant metaphor.
Animals and food aren’t new territory for Spaltro. Ripely Pine included tons of references to those topics as well, both lyrically and visually. The phrase “crane your neck” makes a significant return, as well. But as much as there are threads connecting these two albums, there are vast territories separating them. Sometimes the territory is lyrical and literal: trains, planes, and cars move people around, while Arkansas, Maine and Vermont might be the places they are going. These lyrics are rich, deep, and visceral; they are not your typical breakup lyrics.
They’re not your typical lyrics in general. Spaltro’s image-heavy lyricism never becomes so idiosyncratic as to be effectively dadaist or surreal; instead, these tunes feel like the most vivid memoirists’ work, inviting you in to an experience that you can share. Ripely Pine was an occasionally inscrutable, impressionistic affair: After seems to have fiddled with the knobs and brought everything into focus. And whoa, what a picture.
And whoa, what a sound! The territories between the two albums don’t just range to lyrical differences. Ripely Pine celebrated fractured, passionate, highly intricate songwriting almost to the exclusion of relatability: it was a towering artistic achievement that served as a big boom from a new artist. After takes the complex work and fits it into the service of emotional narratives. The balance of fantastic arrangements and lyrical relatability is much closer to equal, although Spaltro’s voice will always make the mundane seem majestic.
Yet there’s still a giddy charge that emits from these tracks. “Violet Clementine” is as whiz-bang hectic and technically impressive as anything she’s ever written, incorporating a loping bass line that turns into an ominous guitar line (complete with whirring organ). Another section sees her duetting with a male voice, then a noisy choir; it smash-cuts into a brand new tempo and mood. It’s catchy in the weirdest of ways. Opener “Vena Cava” shows her in full flower, whipping back and forth from singer/songwriter quiet to garage-rock loud with unexpected lyrical turns throughout.
Elsewhere, she has straightened out some of the curls and eccentricities of her songwriting into indie-rock songs that focus on her dramatic, powerful voice (“Billions of Eyes,” “Milk Duds”). “Batter” is a garage-rock stomp through and through. “Sunday Shoes” is a vulnerable fingerpicked tune. These tunes are just as compelling as the more wild ones, displaying a different sort of confidence. We knew she could write stuff we couldn’t; now we know she can write the stuff we do write better than we do. In short, talent abounds throughout.
I could keep writing about After for a while. It’s got complexities all in and throughout it, like a complex jewel or a particularly large painting. Lady Lamb’s ability to command attention musically and lyrically is impressive, and the resulting songs are ones that won’t let you leave for long. After is a remarkable achievement that I expect to see on my year end lists.
Considering the state of the nation and the world, I always expect to get more protest music than I do. I could expound upon why I think that is so, but it would take away from the point of this post: a political/protest song debut. Whatever else other people are doing, Tyranny is Tyranny is involving politics in their work.
In fact, everything about them is a political statement, from their band name to their imagery to their lyrics. Their sophomore album The Rise Of Disaster Capitalism is coming out quite soon (streaming in full starting tomorrow, vinyl pre-orders till May 17, full release June 13 on Phratry Records), and they’ve graciously allowed us to premiere their 15-minute juggernaut “Victory Will Defeat You” today.
The best way to describe Tyranny is Tyranny is as a very noisy, thoughtful rock band: post-rock, post-punk, and post-metal are all applicable at various times throughout the 15 minutes of the tune. Forlorn trumpet lends a post-rock texture to the piece; towering distorted guitars and howling vocals ring up the post-metal comparisons; the section from 9-11 minutes has post-punk grooves going on. The whole thing is somewhat akin to Godspeed You! Black Emperor, one of the very few post-rock bands that is explicitly making political and social moves. It’s very heavy in sections, which may not appeal to some post-rock fans, but I think many will dig this. If you’re into Hydra Head Records-style post-metal, you’ll be all over this. It’s not every day you get to be bowled over by 15 minutes of indignant fury, so get your kicks in here.
Ellsworth is about to record the follow-up to that record, and he’s looking for funds to do that. But instead of running a Kickstarter, he’s purchased the URL NotAKickstarter.com. Instead of asking for a goal amount and then making everyone wait, he’s going to ask for donations and then give his music to you immediately as a thank-you for that donation. He has six albums, EPs, and singles available as part of the promotion. That’s a lot to love, and a lot of reasons to contribute to this campaign.
To help whet your appetite for what you may hear when you contribute, here’s a live video of “In My Thoughts,” a track that appears on the Live from the State Room record. IC is lucky enough to debut the video today! (The live album is new, too, as part of the campaign.) “In My Thoughts” is a gorgeous, delicate tune that seems to tumble out of his mouth and out of the band’s instruments. His subtle arrangements frame his mellifluous baritone voice, as the band provides just the right amount of color: cello swoops, guitar garnishes, and percussion keeps the song all held together. The highlight is the chorus, where the rhythms of Ellsworth’s melody gently push against the calm setting for a memorable tension. It’s a song that shows off his skills. (And even though it’s a new song that wasn’t on Salt Lake City, he gives a shout-out to the city twice at the end of the track. Awesome!)
And now we’ve made it through the full Konami code. Cheers!
Blimp Rock’s pop-rock tune “Let’s All Stay In Tonight” celebrates the joys of staying in your house, inviting your friends over, and drinking tea. I heartily approve. For those who have been to hundreds of shows, a sentiment I have echoed for years: “I see there’s more than two bands on the bill / so I don’t think, I don’t think I’m gonna go / I wish it started at seven / so we could get to bed by 11.”
The Life and Times also celebrates home life in “Passion Pit”: the central character brushes his teeth, washes dishes, gets covered in leaves and hangs out with a housecat. The rest of his rock band follows him around his house. Good times had by all.
Keeping the domestic theme alive, one of the oldest urban living tropes I know of is brought to life here in Tyler Boone’s “Take Aim”: meeting a romantic partner at the laundromat.
In stark, vivid, flamboyant contrast to the first three, Many Things’ video for “Holy Fire” concerns the atypical, unusual, and surreal in a single-shot video of remarkable oddity. It’s not what I expected from this song, but it works. Oh, it works.
Lylit’s clip for “Unknown” is basically a combination of those previous things: there’s a very domestic ’50s flair to Lylit’s wardrobe, hair and surroundings, but the pastel coloring of everything makes it just a bit off-kilter. It’s still a fantastic pop song, on top of that.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.