With an honours degree in classical guitar, it is not difficult to hear the talent of Sydney, Australia’s Cameron James Henderson. “This definitely influences my composition,” he says. Influenced by the obvious–Bob Dylan and Tom Waits–it is refreshing to hear echoes of Jim Campilongo, Blake Mills, Ry Cooder, and Marc Ribot coming from his guitar. There is also a vibe that comes from down under. “Definitely John Butler and Ash Grunwald were guys I looked up to heaps during high school. Saw both of them a bunch of times etc and played their songs,” says Henderson.
The twelve-song Storm Rollin’ Inis a treat for blues-folk fans worldwide. The laid back shuffle of opener “Storm Blues” feels like the salt air and beaches of Sydney. Simple, elegant storytelling follows with “Across the Water,” whose guitar work shines. “Lifeboat” features satisfying slide guitar work, while classic guitar riffs blend Stevie Ray Vaughn and John Butler Trio beautifully. The metaphor-filled “Refugee” is a bit of brilliance. Channeling Bob Dylan in vocal style, the song is a powerful testament to humanity’s weaknesses. The mix is stellar, allowing the song to breathe out the message freely.
“No One’s Here/Cares” has a Ray Wylie Hubbard vibe, throwing down a groove that rocks. Sprinkled with harmonica and songwriting nimbly mirroring songwriter Chris Gillespie (AU), this song is an incredibly fun romp. Sequencing on this album works together to create an experience; without “Stand Amazed” (the intro), “Floating” would lose the power of imagery. Stark and haunting acoustic guitarwork slides into the song gracefully. Vocals are layered in with classical guitar composition–simply beautiful musically and lyrically. “Wisest Man” is a shout in the dark, back in the folk singer-songwriter style with an essence of The Milk Carton Kids.
Things shift adeptly to “Old Man Stomp,” then abruptly jump to “Shelter,” as if one could not be there without the other. B.B. King makes his voice heard, here. There is a familiarity with the easy rolling songwriting, hearkening back to the beginning tracks of Storm Rollin’ In. “She’s Not There” brings in what sounds to be the ocean, a continuous pull of life that gives a fluid foundation to the pain of love. “Don’t Go Drifting” closes out the album in style. Soaring, J.J. Cale-style electric guitar and vocal phrasing give an extra punch to the message of the song. This follow-up to Cameron James Henderson’s 2014 debut album is a step up in songwriting dexterity and composition, showing a new depth in vocal delivery. Get yours at www.cameronjameshenderson.com/. —Lisa Whealy
My favorite underutilized instrument is the harmonium, a small box that produces a gloriously warm, organ-like sound but without the sharpness. I also have loved the banjo for many years. So when Jordan O’Jordan came my way with Through Tough Thoughts boasting nothing but harmonium, banjo, and vocals, I knew I was in for a treat. Through Tough Thoughts is a warm, friendly, accessible folk album that should be in the catalog of any folk-lover.
O’Jordan’s voice would in a previous era be called “twee”: a soft, high-pitched voice full of childlike wonder that meshes beautifully with the arrangement instead of trampling it. And by arrangement, I do mean that only harmonium and banjo appear on this album: there is nothing else. (“Miller’s Pond” does bring in some background vocals for some diversity, but other than that…) However, they are used in a variety of ways, and the album never get boring: there’s the roadtrip song (“A Lonely Road”), a harmonium ballad (“Patience is Gruesome”), a drone-y chant (“O! Benvolio!”), a quirky 22-second song (“Digital Postcard #5”), a protest song (“Polar Thoughts”), and an introspective banjo-led song (“Advice from Andre”), among others. The ability of O’Jordan to keep an album of limited instrumentation diverse and interesting is a testament to his songwriting prowess: he can write in a lot of different styles, yet still keep the album feeling cohesive.
Through Tough Thoughts is a lovely, unassuming album. The excellent songwriting is compelling without being complicated and beautiful without trying too hard. It feels like a natural outpouring of songwriting from a singer/songwriter with a vast store of skills to draw on. It’s a rewarding, remarkable record. Highly recommended.
Jacob Furr’s Sierra Madre is a wide-open, spacious alt-country/folk album that evokes fully-realized outfits like Hiss Golden Messenger, Magnolia Electric Co., and even Calexico. Furr’s weathered tenor sets the tone for the record: his sturdy yet lithe vocals mirror the music’s ability to thunder and whisper. The title track/opener is the thunder part: crunchy distorted guitars lead into a bass-led stomp that perfectly frames the opening line “Look into the darkened sky.” Closer “Easy Waves” brings more of that electric guitar fire, ratcheting up to a tremendous, towering album conclusion.
But Furr got his start as a folk troubadour, and there’s still good evidence of that here. The central songs of the album see Furr with just his voice and a fingerpicked guitar, telling stories like “The River” and “El Paso.” These are intense, minor-key works, not the major-key folk ramblers you might expect; they are almost as emotionally tumultuous as the stomping rockers are sonically tumultuous. The complexity of Furr’s voice and delivery are on full display here, showing him to be a careful, delicate performer in this vein. Sierra Madre is a complex, serious album that will be deeply enjoyed by fans of thoughtful, intense alt-country/folk.
For a person who came of age on OK Computer, it’s hard for me not to jump straight to Radiohead’s magnum opus when describing rock led by minor-key distorted guitars that is intended to be taken seriously by thoughtful people. Sunjacket‘s Mantrais that sort of weighty, thoughtful, inventive, unique music. Each song of Mantra packs its own punch, but the main elements of the sound remain the same: distorted guitars, electronic keys/synths, complex percussion, and Carl Hauck and Bryan Kveton’s confident voices.
Opener “Grandstanders” shows off these elements perfectly: lush synths open the track before being set to rhythm with a complex percussion line and heavily manipulated guitar sounds. The resulting landscape bears much in common with The Appleseed Cast’s excellent Peregrine.But instead of just barreling through this mood, the band plays with space and minimalism, progressively dropping everyone out all the way down to single snare hits after the chorus before pounding back in with the full band. It’s a head-turning move, the sort of thing that announces an album. And there is much to announce.
The skittering percussion and staccato synths of “Dissolve It” float a soulful vocal line from Hauck; the fusion is disorienting in the best way. “Not Enough” starts with clanging piano before being sandblasted by a wall of fuzzed-out synth. The song then pulls back into patterned, complex mid-tempo work like “Grandstanders.” “Alligator” feels something like a mix between Bon Iver’s current work, The National, and a heart-rate monitor (this is a compliment). The title track takes all the elements of this paragraph and somehow synthesizes them.
But my award for the most fascinating track goes to “Tongue,” which starts off like a lost MIA track full of digital sounds before being accosted by multitracked trumpet and thunderous bass synth. Right about the time it starts to really feel like a mid-’00s Radiohead track, a vocal line modulated down two or three octaves mourns its way through the landscape. It’s weird and fascinating and the perfect break between the icy, stomping electro of “Habit” and the punchy, catchy rock of “No One’s Around You.”
Mantra is the rare “smart” rock album that isn’t hard to get. It’s weird, it’s quirky, it’s got a unique point of view, but it’s not grueling or punishing. You can listen to it through and hear the guitars and synths and take it at face value. (And its face value is great.) But for those who want to spend more time with their albums, Sunjacket has created an album full of nooks and crannies for listeners to explore. Brilliant stuff here. Highly recommended.
Dietrich Strause‘s How Cruel That Hunger Binds is a sneaky breakup album: it starts off with a folk-pop ode to the narrator’s own human depravity and takes all the way till the eighth track (“Spring Has Sprung”) to get explicit about the fact that getting over someone is hard. Along the way, Strause ponders religion (“Boy Born to Die”), homecoming (“Pennsylvania”), the limits of nostalgia in the face of reality (“Home From the Heartland”), and other introspective topics.
The music is similarly thoughtful: starting from a mature folk standpoint (opener “The Beast That Rolls Within” calls up Josh Ritter, Justin Townes Earle, etc.), Strause adds in all sorts of subtle flourishes to make the tracks pop: horns feature throughout the album, whether blaring (“Lying in Your Arms,” “The World Once Turning”) or warbling sentimentally (“Pennsylvania”), a harmonium provides the backdrop for the mysterious “Around the World,” and Strause incorporates doowop elements throughout (but never in a kitschy way). The end result is a majestic, carefully-wrought album folk-pop album that stands up against multiple listens. Highly recommended.
It’s Christmastime! And if you’re over Sufjan’s Christmas songs (but how could you be??), there are definitely some new options to love this yuletide.
I love Christmas almost as much as I love puns, so Candy Cigarette’s “A Whale’s Christmas in Childress, TX” is endeared to me in multiple ways. (The pun is a reversal of the terms in Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.”) It’s a chipper acoustic-led indie-pop tune that has a heaping helping of Christmas cheer poured into it (and sleigh bells! always sleigh bells!). The unique direction of the lyrics make it even more fun. Awesome.
SHEL goes for a light-touch approach on “Sleigh Ride,” not deviating too far from the classic approach (because what would it be without sleigh bells?). That makes the warm lead vocals the star here.
IC fave Latifah Phillips (of Moda Spira and Page CXVI) has teamed up with Aaron Strumpel to create an album of vintage-sounding Christmas tunes called Heck Ya the Halls (awesome title, y’all). It’s surprisingly non-kitschy: plenty of jazzy trumpet, staccato piano, and smooth vibes to go around.
Jenny & Tyler, another IC fave, just dropped a Christmas album. Their recent folk-pop/indie-rock output has been pretty magnificent, so I expect this release to be no different.
Andrew Belle’s offering for this holiday season is a dense, moody electro-pop outing called “Back for Christmas” that may not end up sung around the yule log but has a lot of staying power. If you hear me kickin’ this one in July, don’t be surprised. Really tight work here.
1. “The Adventures of Prince Achmed – Morricone Youth. This wild, expansive piece grabs from a wide array of movie soundtrack, traditional, and current indie-rock influences as part of a soundtrack for Lotte Reiniger’s 1926 German animated silent film of the same name. (The film is the oldest known surviving animated film.) It’s the sort of genre-defying, eclectic, intensely unique music that doubles as a “stump the music journalist” game.
2. “Cumulus” – Koltbach. This is straight-up what trip-hop sounds like in 2016. The stark, staccato beats, the dusky mood, and the lush piano all hearken back to early trip-hop. The burbling, zippy synths update the sound pleasantly. This is solid, impressive work.
3. “Rattlesnake No. 3” – The Aquaerials. Thundering piano low-end commands my attention pretty thoroughly, and this high-drama instrumental piece has it in spades. Some pad synths play in for atmosphere, but this one’s all about the piano.
4. “Vi 1” – DYLDO. A cascading, woozy bit of piano and violin, like a quartet on psychedelics. It’s a bit of a disorienting piece–it feels like something familiar hidden in the waves, but the modulations make it uniquely other. Fascinating.
5. “Anillo delicado encantado” – Jorge Segovia. A playful, quirky piece from Segovia that sounds at the beginning like the sort of work you might find in the adventuring segments of an RPG (Final Fantasy came to mind first, then Zelda), but it rapidly transitions into a lusher, fuller section and back out. There’s a lot going on in this short piece, which is what makes it such fun to listen to.
6. “Slooshy Klang” – Niles Cooper. Not actually slooshy or clangy, this piano-and-violin work is a sort of deconstructed Carly Comando piece, as a pulsing, pressing lead melody gets anxiety and breaks up into staccato parts. The violin just adds to the air of uncertainty. It’s the sort of thing that appears at the nadir of a protagonist’s arc in movies: really sad, in a majestic sort of way.
7. “Rain” – Frode-5. Not too long, not too short, this solo piano piece sets up a pensive mood, inhabits it, and lets it fade off into the distance. Restraint is key here, and overall the piece works wonderfully.
1. “Backseat Pressure (Summer Dregs Remix)” – Dirty Blonde. I don’t know what filter, patch, or setting Summer Dregs used to augment the piano here, but it sounds unique and just plain cool. The rest of the arrangement plays out with the best lessons learned from both EDM and indie-electro pop. A thoroughly satisfying jam.
2. “Time Traveler” – Emeryld. A squiggly electro-pop verse arrangement unfolds into a delicate, moving chorus. Then the post-chorus instrumental section explodes into a Postal Service-style soaring electro-indie-pop bit. It all is held together by Emeryld’s perfectly-fit vocals.
3. “On a Bus” – Baseball Gregg. Bouncy, charming, a little goofy, but grounded enough by a rattling percussion line to not float off into untethered whimsy, this indie-pop tune is the audio equivalent of a gap-toothed smile on a sunny day.
4. “Trails” – Sisters. Somehow manages to sound exactly like 1985 and 2016 at the same time: the trumpeting synths, the arpeggiator press, the way-up-front vocal mix, the whole nine yards. Is it Paul Simon? Yes? Arcade Fire? CHVRCHES? Who can say?
5. “Colors” – Honest Men. Everybody needs a bouncy electro-pop jam in their life every now and then. You can’t really roll the windows down in a lot of places right now, but if you’re still in a place where you can…
6. “Close to Be Close to Me” – Echo Ladies. My general formula on popular music 1980-1989 is “closer to the ’80s = farther from my interest.” There was just a lot going on in that era that didn’t connect with me: gated drums, giant towers of guitar reverb, icy moods, and lots of medium-speed tempos. Somehow, Echo Ladies took all those things I hated about ’80s pop and turned them into a really sharp, enjoyable electro-pop tune. The vocal melodies really pop in this one.
7. “Half a Billion Miles” – Vagabond Specter. Space-rock was always kind of hanging out just off-screen. Sure, David Bowie did his thing, and yeah, there was that early ’00s moment where space-rock got real serious, but in a lot of ways we haven’t mined all we can of space-rock. (There’s also The Lovely Few, who are holding it down.) Vagabond Specter gives us a version of space-rock that sounds like what a spacefaring roadtrip song might sound like. It’s all burbling synths, headbobbing percussion, and soothing vocals. Rad.
8. “Red Roses” – Leisure Tank. This female-fronted indie-rock track has ominous overtones all over it, from the powerful vocal performance to the charging full-band coda. Sounds like an early Elbow track on steroids.
9. “Manta Ray” – Sam Brockington. Lightly funky, rhythmically interesting, and blessed with a bouncy bass line, this indie-rock tune rattles, dances, and sways its way through the three-minute runtime.
10. “Cupid’s Drunk” – Danny Starr. Fans of Oasis will find much to love in this acoustic-rock tune, especially Starr’s vocal melodies in the chorus.
11. “Staying Together” – ATTU. Combines mopey bedroom pop with unassuming dance-rock to create something that’s not either thing. It’s friendly but not exactly warm; it’s approachable but not saccharine; it’s fun but not giddy. It floats, but it’s not wispy. I could go on.
12. “By the Ocean” – Kid Indigo. Chipper acoustic melodies, a refreshingly earnest mood, and a subtle cool make this song into a smile-inducing charmer that’s reminiscent of early Jason Mraz work. (Remember when he was the coolest? I do.)
13. “Dreamers” – Delafaye. The mood Delafaye sets fits the title perfectly in this one, as the soft reverb and carefully-selected instrumental tones give this acoustic-led track a dreamy indie-pop feel. It’s a little more alt-country than Grandaddy, but it’s in the ballpark.
14. “Boulders” – Lucas Laufen. Pop in the way that Damien Rice and Jose Gonzalez are pop–not exactly folk, not adult alternative, but distinctly drawing on formal pop traditions in an acoustic vein. The “Quiet is the New Loud” folks would be all into this for sure. Laufen’s vocals fit excellently with the arrangement.
1. “The Tallest Woman on Earth” – Prints Jackson. Jackson’s on a never-ending song-a-month project (this one is month 33), and it seems like it’s only honing his skills: this fingerpicked folk tune is near-perfect. The vocals are engaging, the arrangement keeps morphing and changing, and the whole thing is a “can’t take my ears off it” success. Turn off the video you’re watching and just give this one your full attention: it will reward you.
2. “Still Believe in Love” – Darrin James Band. A spiritual successor to the swift, self-confident protest songs of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, this fingerpicked travelin’ song is a protest anthem and a call for love all at once.
3. “Snake in the Grass” – Autumn Chorus. This a thoughtfully arranged chamber-folk piece with soft, arresting vocals. If you want a jolt, look up the story behind the song. Even if you’re not the researchy type, you can feel the gravitas here.
4. “Penny for Your Thoughts” – Einar Stray Orchestra. It takes chutzpah to put together an indie orchestra in 2016–the economics and logistics of it are just nightmarish. But the music that you can produce: whoa. This piano-led piece is punchy and yet organic, keeping a drumkit, thrumming bass, and pizzicato strings all balanced perfectly. It’s a complex whirligig that doesn’t draw attention to its moving parts and instead shows off the whole, awesome result.
5. “Astrovan” – Mt. Joy. Comes straight out of the SUSTO school of laidback irreverence: chilled-out alt-country that imagines Jesus driving an Astro van (among other things). I’m not on team Astro Van lyrically (“maybe there is no heaven”), but man, the melodic appeal and gentle groove of this song are hard to reject.
6. “Until I Fall Asleep” – Paul Cook & The Chronicles. Who doesn’t love a sub-two-minute acoustic pop lullaby? This one is sweet, kind, and lovely.
7. “Chasing Heights” – Bamik. No genre is ever dead–it just gets harder and harder to do something that’s genuinely riveting without just calling back to old cliches. But it is totally doable, and Bamik demonstrates it by making incredibly engaging folk-pop–that still sounds like Mumford and Sons crossed with Fleet Foxes. But in that juxtaposition is magic, and Bamik finds that magic. Fantastic.
8. “4th of July” – STILLS. The close vocal harmonies and harmonium make this a warm, immersive, intimate folk tune. I love what the harmonium can do for a song, and STILLS put it to great use here.
9. “Rising Men Down” – Kate O’Callaghan. O’Callaghan’s lovely Irish lilt leads this track, as she uses it softly and powerfully throughout the tune. The arrangement is sophisticated and impressive.
10. “Goodbye” – Lucas Laufen. The sound of sheep bleating and wind rustling in the background give this gentle ballad even more pastoral bonafides. Laufen’s voice meshes with the pristine guitar playing beautifully.
11. “Lover After” – Luke De-Sciscio. Fans of Jeff Buckley will appreciate the yearning, ethereal vocals over delicate washes of acoustic notes that compose this emotive tune.
12. “Let Me Down Easy” – Andrea von Kampen. von Kampen has impressive control over her voice, swooping from a dignified near-whisper to a keening wail to an even-handed plea with tremendous ease. This amount of diversity is a mark of songwriting maturity, and this break-up tune has a rare thoughtful quality to it that drives home the idea even more.
13. “Hewing Crowns” – Her Harbour. A solitary, lonesome rumination over a solo piano–the room echo gives the vocal performance even more gravitas than the commanding-yet-vulnerable vocal performance itself brings to the table. Good news for people who like sad news.
1. “Home Away” – Valley Shine. This song excellently combines two things I love: enthusiastic folk-pop and Graceland-style African music influences. It’s the sort of jubilant yet suave work that transcends genre barriers and should be appreciated by people across the pop music spectrum. Just a fantastic song.
2. “Brother” – Jack the Fox. Doesn’t need more than an acoustic guitar, some warm pad synths and an arresting voice to totally take over a room. It’s quality on par with Josh Ritter and Fleet Foxes, but doesn’t sound like either artist.
3. “One Day I’ll Be Your Ears” – Mateo Katsu. Ramshackle, enthusiastic, chunky, herky-jerky acoustic indie-pop from the school of Daniel Johnston and Page France. It’s the sort of charmingly off-kilter work that lo-fi was meant to celebrate.
4. “Lil to Late” – Brother Paul. Here’s a fun, easygoing acoustic blues shuffle with hints of rockabilly, vintage country and self-deprecating humor sprinkled throughout. It’s topped off with just the right amount of Motown soul-style horns.
5. “The Time It Takes” – The Show Ponies. This Americana outfit sounds like a Joe Walsh moonlighting as the leader of a Nashville country outfit: saloon-style piano, radio-rock ramblin’ vibe, and male/female duet vocals straight off your local country radio. It’s not usually what I’m into, but it hooked me and kept me.
6. “Return to the Scene” – Aaron Atkins. Weary yet sturdy, this alt-country/folk tune ambles along on the strength of great rumbling bass lines and a convincingly-achy vocal performance.
7. “Phoenix Fire” – Simon Alexander. From the Josh Garrels/Hozier school of intense singers comes this thoughtful, mature pop song with a great chorus.
8. “Melody, I” – Pluto and Charon. A warm, intimate acoustic performance that retains the fret squeaks and string buzz. It’s more rough in its fidelity than Damien Jurado ever was, but it has a similar sort of vibe in the dignified vocals.
9. “Waterski to Texas” – Budo and Kris Orlowski. Now this one really does sound like Damien Jurado, but the latter-day Jurado. Budo and Orlowski walk a fine line between big, sweeping arrangements of singer/songwriter work and a very personal, even raw, emotive quality. The vocals here are particularly fine.
10. “Gold Ring” – Redvers Bailey. This one’s a lovely, romantic, gently layered song that floats somewhere between Josh Radin’s delicate work and the wide-eyed wonder of “Casimir Pulaski Day”-style Sufjan Stevens.
11. “High Rolling” – Jake Aaron. This acoustic instrumental manages to be complex and inviting at the same time, subverting expectations by not just jumping to the highest treble notes for the lead melody. By keeping the melody low and close to the fingerpicked foundation of the piece, the tune feels both comfortable and complicated. It’s very worth your time, even for those who aren’t generally into acoustic instrumentals.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.