I’ve been covering More than Skies for a while, because their blend of folk, indie-rock, and emo/punk is a unique one. On their self-titled double album, Adam Tomlinson’s brainchild sprawls out in all directions, delivering a powerful sound that encompasses all three of its genres on a spectrum. The band is adept at switching between the three within the same song, often staging them back to back for maximum effect. Their adherence to any particular sound is only so great as is called for by the tune: The emotions powering these tracks are what dictate how loud or quiet they should be. This allows center stage to be taken by swooping cellos, soaring violins, crunchy electric guitar riffs, gentle finger-picked acoustic lines, and Tomlinson’s creaky voice at different points throughout the album.
Tomlinson’s voice is an important point here: his nasal vocal tones aren’t hidden in any way, shape, or form. People who like the vocals (which could be compared to those of MeWithoutYou’s Aaron Weiss, Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum, and early John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats) will have a great shot at loving the record; people who aren’t down with atypical vocal styles might struggle a bit. A second make-or-break point is its titanic length: it’s a full 24 songs, and they aren’t short tunes. This album runs almost 100 minutes. Settle in, friends.
However, if you’re into it, you’ll be very into the total scope of the album: wild, moody, frantic, despondent, and everything in between. Tunes like 8-minute closer “New Year’s Retribution” show off the impressive range of emotion that More than Skies is capable of, moving from gentle folk to string-accompanied indie-rock, then to unaccompanied acoustic guitar, before ramping back up in a punk/emo style (but with soaring strings on top of it). It’s an uncompromising, adventurous song that encompasses this spirit of this uniquely realized release. More than Skies drops March 24.
Fairmont has gone through a variety of permutations over the past decade: melodic indie-rock, theatrical pop-rock, folky indie-pop, and bitter rock’n’roll. With 8 1/2, they’ve returned to their roots as a melodic indie-rock band with a cynical cast to the lyrics. But when you come home after a decade, things are different no matter what. In Fairmont’s case, the lessons of seven and a half previous albums (hence the name) have honed their songwriting skills and arrangement aesthetics.
Where Fairmont was once a three-piece that got by on exactly three instruments, they’ve expanded comfortably into their current quartet lineup with a variety of support instruments. Female vocals, marimba, keys, synths, and other miscellaneous sounds fill out the songs here, giving songs like “Love & War,” “Don’t Wait Up,” and “The Connection” unique vibes. The first of those three benefits from the interplay of all those extra sounds in an upbeat indie-rock tune with a mid-song slow section (familiar territory for Fairmont).
“Don’t Wait Up” is a moodier tune that captures the nuance that Fairmont has earned over a decade of songwriting. Neil Sabatino’s voice, usually brash and nasal in Violent Femmes style, is tuned to sweeter sounds here. The female background vocals and glockenspiel melody temper some of the brittle edges on Fairmont’s sound, and the tune becomes a highlight.
Sabatino nuancing his vocals isn’t the only new element in the sung category: “The Connection” is the first Fairmont song ever to feature female lead vocals, making it a standout. The rainy-day vibes of “Gone” are largely sold by the descending keys, fitting drums, and guest vocals from IC faves The Maravines.
The tweaks that Fairmont made on 8 1/2 result in a more comfortable, relaxed version of the band. Sure, they’ve still got jittery, anxious energy (“Love & War”), but it’s set in the service of different goals here. If you’re into melodic indie-rock with strong melodies and textured arrangements, you’ll be into 8 1/2. The album drops on 3/3.
*Neil Sabatino of Fairmont owns Mint 400 Records, which is the record label of The Duke of Norfolk, whom I manage.
Singer/songwriter Kris Orlowski has been a shooting star for the fast few years, moving quickly from local roots to premiering his latest album Believer on Pandora to recording a three-song EP with the venerable Damien Jurado at the helm. Columbia City Theater Sessions is the outcome of that collaboration: three songs of stripped-down acoustic work with delicate touches that are indicative of Jurado’s ear.
The new version of “Believer” retains the heavy strum pattern of the original, but foregrounds the lead and backup vocals. It creates a more collective vibe to the tune, as opposed to the very individualistic vibe that runs through the lyrics and original full-band version. (You can check the full version of “Believer” as the bonus track on this EP.)
The revelation here is “Fighting the War,” which is transformed from an anthemic pop-rock song into a tender, delicate tune that incorporates distant piano, warm background vocals, and even flute. It feels very much like a Jurado tune, in its tension between spare vibes and lush aspirations. It’s a stand-out tune both ways Orlowksi has cut it so far, which is truly remarkable.
The new track, “Winter, Winter” is truly a solo effort, vocals and guitar only. I don’t know how much influence Jurado had on it, but the insistent strum pattern is similar to the work that Damien would put out. Jurado’s fingerprints are all over these three quiet re-interpretations, and it shows a side of Orlowski that he hasn’t flexed in a while. If you’re looking for a solid little EP to play on a snowy day (like today), this one would be a great choice.
The folk-grounded indie-pop of In Tall Buildings‘ Driver gets better as it gets weirder. Opener “Bawl Cry Wail” is a traditional modern folk tune that wouldn’t be out of place in a Elephant Micah record, and it’s by no means bad. But things start to sparkle on “All You Pine,” as Erik Hall introduces rubbery, staccato bass; complex drumming; and subtle synth undertones. Then a gritty, grungy guitar solo appears. It’s all very “other” to modern folk, and it’s intriguing. Lead single “Flare Gun” relies on arpeggiated synth and perky drumming to float his guitar picking and vocals; the overall effect is remarkable. “I’ll Be Up Soon” manages to create the separated, synthetic electronic vibe without any obvious electronics, which is an impressive feat.
Once you’ve heard the album once, go back and listen to it again; once you’ve listened through, the context of the whole thing becomes clear and even dramatically un-electronic songs like “Bawl Cry Wail” fit into the amalgam. Songs like “Aloft” could be electronic or organic–it doesn’t matter. They just sound right together. If you’re into adventurous, sonically experimental music (but not in an avant-garde sort of way), Driver is for you.
Usually when I get a music release from someone who’s already famous in another artistic medium, I ignore it. The space that I have is best used on people trying to work their way up from nothin’. However, Michael Malarkey is an exception because his music is really good. Feed the Flames EP shows Malarkey in optimistic fingerpicking troubadour mode, like some cross between Alexi Murdoch, Josh Ritter and Josh Radin.
The chorus vocal line of “Through the Night and Back Again” has been stuck in my head for days, as Malarkey’s gentle baritone lilts its way through a pastoral setting that includes lazy pedal steel. It’s an impressive, mature tune. “Lost and Sound” and “Bells Still Ring” keep that feel going, giving a sense of motion and lightness to the release that can’t be dragged down by two darker tunes. The title track is a minor key tune, still with strong melodicism and fingerpicking, that plays up a romantic feel. “Everything’s Burned” is a helter-skelter klezmer/gypsy tune that taxes Malarkey’s vocals in delivery speed. It’s a fun, quirky tune that never feels overly kitschy.
Acting (Vampire Diaries) first made Michael Malarkey famous, but his singer/songwriter chops are just as strong as any one-art artist could hope for. I really look forward to what Malarkey will do in the future, musically–his first offering is impressive.
I’m always listening to music. I listen to so much music that I have two strands of listening going at any one time–the stuff I’m reviewing and the stuff I’m listening to for fun. It’s been this way since I was in high school: I once spent six months listening to nothing but CAKE in my spare time. (It’s a good thing I have two arms of this project.) In short, my love for CAKE is deep and abiding. If you’ve read this blog recently, you know that my love for alt-country is just as deep (although categorically not as abiding, as it hasn’t been around for a decade yet.) So if there’s a band that combines CAKE and alt-country, it’s a sure bet that I’m going to be all over that.
Embleton‘s It Did Me Well does just that, including a re-contextualized cover* of “Sad Songs and Waltzes” amid a set of tight, lush, upbeat alt-country songs reminiscent of Dawes and Ryan Adams. The nine songs here form a cohesive whole that shows refined songwriting and arranging skills on the part of bandleader Kevin Embleton.
The opening quartet of tunes says a lot about the record: Opener and title track “It Did Me Well” introduces a crunchy electric guitar riff before settling down into an easy-going acoustic strum. That pattern is soon filled out by wavering pedal steel, distant drums, and Embleton’s impassioned high baritone/low tenor voice. It’s a walking-speed jam that instrumentally reminds me of the Jayhawks and vocally calls up comparisons to the controlled drama of Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith. “You’re Not Ready” introduces a harmonica to the mix, taking a lighter tack than the electrified previous tune. Embleton goes for the pop melody in the chorus, showing off some chops there.
The third track is that CAKE cover. Sonically, it’s not that much different than the original, but it’s pulled from its ironic context (CAKE is not an alt-country band) and placed into an earnest one. Surrounded by other country tunes, it takes on a poignant air that was hard to find in the midst of the irony-laced original. It’s a very clever move on Embleton’s part. The fourth track is lead single “Leaving for Good” (IC premiered it), which slots the pedal steel in the lead spot and creates a gentle tune around that keening, mournful sound. The drums still give the song pep and punch, but the emotional qualities of the lyrics and vocals come front and center. It shows off a different angle of the Embleton sound.
The rest of the album continues to develop the balance between crunchy riffs (“Punches”) and gentle arrangements (“Her Name Was Grace”) while displaying an emotional quality through the vocal lines and the melodies (“Only Begun,” “Mountain Time”). Fans of harder edges on their alt-country (Drive-by Truckers, et al) might find that not to their liking, but fans of Dawes’ ruminations on life and love will love it. If you’re into the past or present Laurel Canyon sound, you’ll be all up in this. It Did Me Well drops March 10–you can pre-order it at Embleton’s site.
*Post-publication, I was informed that “Sad Songs and Waltzes” is originally a Willie Nelson tune, which means that Embleton re-re-contextualized it. As I only knew about the CAKE version when I wrote the review, I’m leaving the text the same. Sorry, Willie. Sorry, Trigger.
Tender Mercy‘s 5-song EP Sacred Sphinx follows up on his 2014 debut of the same length. His milieu hasn’t changed a bit: it’s still Mark Kramer’s forlorn voice, a gently plucked guitar, tape hiss, and reverb. The minimalist, slowcore songs that result are heavily mood-oriented pieces; they rely not on complexity, but on the all-pervasive mood that the few elements create. It takes work to make simplicity sound so vital, and it’s clear that Kramer has put in that work.
Because of the stark minimalism, the melodies that Kramer features feel immediate and foregrounded: the vocals in the chorus of “Invisible” and the guitar patterns in “Doubt” and “MLK Day” are particularly striking. By contrast, the near-consistent guitar strumming of “Dirt Mtns” feels like a grand statement. Tender Mercy’s songs create an alternate universe for themselves and suck you into it: they seem difficult and foreboding at first, but their charms unfold as the listener slowly accustoms to the type of world that Kramer is imagining. Slow down a bit and enjoy Sacred Sphinx; it’s not the sort of thing that you work to. It’s an experience to be savored.
Alan Doyle‘s So Let’s Go is an incredibly fun amalgam of foot-stomping folk, celtic vibes, and radio pop conventions that makes it a goal to connect with its audience. From the Imagine Dragons-esque whistling of the opening title track to the infectious barroom chant of “1, 2, 3, 4″ to the claps in alt-pop/folk-pop tune “I Can’t Dance Without You,” there’s barely a moment throughout that isn’t written for maximum participant inclusion. There are woah-ohs, sing-alongs, clapping, stomping, and all manner of dramatic moments that make for great pop songs.
Doyle is the frontman of long-running band Great Big Sea, and the songwriting experience shows here. This is the sort of album that makes a convincing argument for the necessity of pop radio: how could anybody who likes pop songs not enjoy Alan Doyle’s music if they just heard it? It’s not a giant artistic statement, it’s not depthy or weighty, it’s just an incredible straight-ahead pop album. If you like fun, happy, uplifting pop songs, you need to check out So Let’s Go.
1. “The Last Generation of Love” – The Holy Gasp. Hugely theatrical vocals, driving conga drums, stabbing horns, and an overall feel of wild desperation permeate this wild track. It feels like a lost ’60s bossa nova played at triple the speed with an apocalyptic poet dropping remix bars over it. In short, this one’s different.
2. “Hot Coffee” – Greg Chiapello. Somewhere between Brill Building formal pop songcraft and Beatles-esque arrangement affectations sits this perky, smile-inducing, timeless tune.
3. “Wake Up and Fight” – Gaston Light. If you’re looking for a widescreen folk creed, this tune builds from a single bass note to a fist-raised anthem. Gaston Light attempts to channel Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Conor Oberst, and more.
4. “Evil Dreams” – Elstow. ’50s girl-pop mixed with some 9 p.m. vibes and reverb = solid track.
6. “All This Wandering Around” – Ivan and Alyosha. Ivan and Alyosha are back with a chipper indie-rock song that will get you tapping your toes.
7. “Less Traveled” – Johanna Warren. A lilting soprano supported by low flutes and burbling fingerpicking developed into technical guitarwork that lifted my eyebrows. There’s a lot of talent going on here. I love what Team Love is up to this year.
8. “Folding” – Martin Callingham. Callingham has crafted the sort of tune that’s almost inarguable: it floats lightly on your consciousness, gently working its way through to the end of the tune. If Joshua Radin had gotten a few more instruments involved without going rock…
9. “Wild at Heart” – Trans Van Santos. Does Calexico have a patent of the sound of the high desert? Mark Matos hopes not, as the baritone-voiced songwriter of Trans Van Santos has a way with the guitar delays and reverbs of that venerable sound. Perfect for your jaunts to or from Flagstaff.
10. “Don’t You Honey Me” – Timothy Jaromir. Here’s a bluesy country duet with excellent come-hither female vocals, muted horns, and romance on the mind.
Yo, “Steal the Light” by The Cat Empire takes a minute to warm up. Give it a second, though, because it turns into a triumphant, horn-laden, percussive Caribbean groove. Because they’re from Australia.
The clip for “Between Us” by Pistol Shrimp is beautiful non-sequitur set to a Passion Pit-esque thumper. Awesome.
Just Walden’s “Space Cadet” video is certainly saying something, but I’m not sure what it is. It’s a neat-looking video aside from parsing the deeper meanings.
Austin alt-country outfit Salesman‘s output up until this point has been eerie, avant-garde, and complex. With the Let’s Go Jump into the Fire 7″, they’ve gone in a different direction that they admit is “a new page” in their book. And boy, is it.
Instead of dark and foreboding tunes that take a while to make their way to your heart, the title track of the seven-inch is an immediately endearing tune. It opens with a jaunty, celebratory, major-key fingerpicking pattern on an electric guitar, which is a shock in itself.
The rest of the arrangement unfolds in a careful way that builds the song seemingly organically to a jubilant point two minutes in where Devin James Fry yells “Yeah!” not out of terror, but out of enthusiasm. Wavering pedal steel, tasteful drums, and thrumming bass create a warm atmosphere that’s hard to resist. It’s very much alt-country, and the rhythms and vocals still mark it as a Salesman track, but their powers are definitely engaged in a different direction.
“Let’s Go Jump into the Fire” is backed with “Riddle of the Source,” which is darker in tone and timbre. It’s still not as difficult as their previous work (or Fry’s previous work with apocalyptic post-rock band Lord Buffalo), but the vibes are darker, more forlorn, more at home in the minor key. Fry stretches out his vocals here, leading the song with his nuanced performance. There’s an awesome (and all too short) guitar solo as well. Salesman’s new look is less obtuse, more direct, and thoroughly enjoyable. “Let’s Go Jump into the Fire” is a brilliant track that speaks optimistically toward things to come.
Janet Devlin‘s Running With Scissors is a thoroughly modern acoustic pop album, putting all the things we’ve learned since Nevermind to good use. The Irish singer/songwriter channels The Lumineers, Lilith Fair, Ingrid Michaelson, and KT Tunstall throughout the album, creating tunes that fit the best adjectives of each turn. Opener “Creatures of the Night” is a perky mid-’00s acoustic-pop song with mandolin and stomping drums; the booming kick bass turns into the walloped, four-on-the-floor tom of “House of Cards,” which is a female-fronted Lumineers track if there ever was one. (It’s even got the obligatory “hey!”)
The tunes set the tone for the album: fun, smart, and melodically mature. The surprisingly maturity with which she traipses through genres is worth noting here: “Hide and Seek” is straight-ahead ’90s female pop (Jewel?), “Lifeboat” includes melodica and separated strumming a la Ingrid Michaelson, “Things We Lost in the Fire” is an introspective piano ballad (Fiona Apple!), and her cover of the The Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love” is all folk fingerpicking and whispered vocals. “Wonderful” has a regrettable lyrical concept, but if you just ignore the words, it’s another cheery ’90s pop tune. (On second thought, maybe the goofy lyrics are just part and parcel of her commitment to the style.)
Janet Devlin’s Running With Scissors is a carousel of delights: no matter which song you pick, it will take you for a warm, lovely trip. If you’re into acoustic pop, you should know about Devlin.
1. “Why” – Rathborne. Helter-skelter drums, bass that’s just trying to keep up, jagged guitar sprawling everywhere, aggrieved vocals leading the charge? And it’s done in 2 minutes? Sign me up for garage rock 101, Rathborne. Teach me.
2. “Jawbone” – Dogheart. Sometimes the melody and vocals are so good that it doesn’t really matter what genre the song is. Dogheart’s good-natured garage rock will have people of all sorts humming along.
3. “Suckcess” – Michael Rault. Lo-fi rock with just the right amount of fuzz to get your adrenaline, but not so much that you can’t tell what’s going on. A strong dose of pop ideals (and pop history) put this one over the top.
4. “Boomerang” – Ships Have Sailed. Big fat pop songs are great ways to get through wet, cold Tuesdays in February. Ones that have vibes like The Killers are even better.
5. “Six String to My Heart” – Purple Hill. If The Hold Steady were more alt-country instead of classic rock, they might have sounded like this organ-laden, vocal-driven mid-tempo rock tune.
6. “A Whole New Shape” – Happyness. Remember when Yuck and Smith Westerns were big because they were playing neo-grunge with an indie flair? Happyness is on that train too, and they deserve as much attention as the aforementioned.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.