This is a combination essay and music review. If you’re more interested in Jenny and Tyler’s latest music than the state of the music industry, skip to the paragraph starting with “So you may be thinking”.
I know three things about the current state of the music industry:
1. People want to hear new music.
2. Business models are changing.
3. Music bloggers haven’t stopped writing about music.
The forward-thinking indie-folk/indie-rock duo Jenny & Tyler understand all of these trends and have come up with an impressive way to respond to all three. Album One [Patreon] gives the people what they want in a way that makes monetary sense for the duo and in a format that bloggers can write about. Everybody wins!
The thing J&T use to pull this coup off is right there in the title:Album One [Patreon] is only available if you’re a patron of Jenny and Tyler’s Patreon account. (However, you can see a trailer for the album on Facebook.) For those unfamiliar with Patreon, it’s a subscription service where fans of an artist can pledge to pay money to the artist on a set schedule (per month, per piece of media, etc.) in return for a reward. Jenny and Tyler are using Patreon to record and release a new song at the incredibly prolific rate of one a week, every week. All listeners who subscribe to the Patreon get to hear and download these songs. [I pay $5 a month–roughly $1 per song, or basically iTunes rates. (Remember iTunes? Good times.)] As a result of this process, Jenny and Tyler are guaranteed some monthly income and listeners get 4-5 new Jenny and Tyler songs a month.
So that’s how Jenny and Tyler give the people more new music in a sustainable way. But Patreon music is tough to review: the music lives behind a paywall, arrives incrementally over a long period of time, and often represents the sort of work not really intended for review (such as demos, never-gonna-be-released b-sides, live takes, etc.). To compound these logistical troubles, most music reviewers don’t have enough business income to subscribe to the Patreon account of every band they want to review music from. As such, this is the first Patreon account I’ve ever covered at Independent Clauses, despite the fact that I know the service well enough to fund a non-IC project of my own.
Jenny and Tyler have so far made two savvy moves with their Patreon:
a. releasing high-quality, “real” songs and
b. packaging the first 10 songs they released on Patreon as an album.
In eschewing goofy b-sides, live recordings, listener updates, and other types of content that can all (very satisfyingly) populate a Patreon, they are experimenting with how they get paid for the main work that they do.* Making Patreon central to their work instead of peripheral to it is an important, savvy move. They are certainly not the only people doing this, but it makes the other savvy move even more smart. By packaging their songs released on Patreon as an album, it shows off that the work they are doing on the Patreon is not extraneous to their discography: if you want to be a person following J&T’s full discography, Patreon is the way they are releasing this latest era of their work. It is an important message that helps let people know that the duo is serious about Patreon and hopefully will transform more people who were initially skeptical into subscribers.
The second thing it does is show to the media and bloggers that they want this work to be considered for media in the same way as a studio album. (And I know how to review albums.) The album has credits, liner notes, lyrics, album art, and more–all the materials I would expect from a studio album. I’m picking up this review of my own accord instead of getting a pitch from J&T, but I would love to see musicians compile content from Patreon accounts as J&T have done and then take the next step of pitching it to me for review. I want this to happen because it meets this blog’s goals: it gives me more stuff to review, keeps me on the cutting edge of developments in the field, and allows me to help artists (by promoting the artist’s money-making Patreon). I have always wanted to help artists here at Independent Clauses–in an era where “go buy this” is archaic and press quotes are getting less valuable than they used to be, I’m looking to find the best ways to help artists get up and on in their careers.
So you may be thinking: “Okay, so, cool, music business, yes, neat, but I’m reading a music review blog. Is the music good? Is this just an odds-and-ends affair? Is the quality low?” To wit: yes, no, no. Album One shows off the increasingly mature songwriting and rock-solid production skills of Jenny & Tyler. The song-a-week constraints that they’re working with don’t diminish the quality of the songwriting or recording one bit: instead, these songs are sharp, well-arranged, and carefully developed.
I’ve been following Jenny and Tyler’s career via reviews here at Independent Clauses for a long time. Their earliest work was light, warm, fun folk-pop, while mid-era work such as Faint Not created huge, dramatic towers of sound from folk underpinnings. Album One encompasses both of these poles: “When the Sun Shines Bright” is a beachy, sun-dappled, easygoing tune; highlight “Stars Shone Over Nashville” is about as sonically thundering as anything they’ve yet put together. The rest of the album falls somewhere between: “I Miss You” is as bass-heavy as it is emotionally heavy, opener “Wrote Us a Story” has a romantic lyric and a deftly handled piano/guitar arrangement that sounds bigger than just two instruments, and “Hills and Valleys” is a yearning solo tune with Jenny behind a guitar. The quality of these songs is very high: “Stars Shone,” “Wrote Us a Story” and “When You Awake” are some of the most emotionally moving, melodically interesting songs Jenny and Tyler have yet penned.
But what’s more amazing than the previously-proven fact that Jenny and Tyler can write great songs is that the song-a-week arrangements are often complex, layered, and dense. Patreon supporters are not getting raw demos, scratch tracks, or castoff songs. Tyler is becoming quite adept as a producer and engineer, experimenting with approaches and instruments (like the electronic beats in “Home”) in a satisfying way. The mixes are well-developed, keeping the vocals at the fore but also allowing the instruments to shine. In short, these songs are the real deal.**
This approach to Patreon (and Patreon overall) is not for every artist. Some people permanently need an editor and should not be releasing as much music as Jenny and Tyler are here. But Jenny and Tyler shine in this medium: producing lots of work in a short span of time has tightened their work instead of lessening it. Their musical muscles are trained and flexed here. I’m excited to see what the next album brings. If you’re a fan of emotionally-driven folk-pop with full arrangements, you should be supporting this Patreon and getting Album One. This album specifically is a strong continuation of themes they have developed in their career, and their overall Patreon project is a thoughtful way to develop their career. It helps Jenny and Tyler be more sustainable financially, and you’ll get a lot of Jenny and Tyler music. What isn’t great about that?
*There is a longer discussion to be had here about what the role of the album is in a Patreon world, but that is an essay for another day. Suffice it to say for now: I think that you can do things with studio albums that you can’t do with Patreon albums and vice versa. Both have a place.
**Now, there’s definitely room for “definitive versions” of these songs to appear: there’s more work in a studio that could result in something closer to the hugely coordinated song choices, lyrical themes, and sonic contours of Faint Not. This is a different take on Jenny and Tyler than the studio, and it is fantastic.
“Don’t Breathe a Word” is a lovely, fingerpicked singer/songwriter tune that hits all the right buttons. Fans of the genre will note that Ben Bateman‘s high tenor vocal tone shares qualities with Brett Dennen and Passenger.
The tune could work for either artist, as well. The dreamy, reverb-heavy guitar tone and delicate mood echo Dennen’s careful touch, while the structure of the lines in the lyrics and the subtle vocal delivery reminds me of Passenger. Some subtle bass work fills out the piece to give it some heft. Overall, it’s a light, airy, romantic piece that would fit as the soundtrack to a lazy summer day,swinging in a hammock or lying down in the grass.
While you can hear the song in advance on YouTube above, it hits digital outlets on July 31st. It’s the first of six songs Bateman will be releasing monthly over the next half-year. If you can’t wait that long to hear more from him, he’ll be doing some live dates soon:
November 3rd: Westgarth Social Club, Middlesbrough
December 1st Great British Folk Festival
1. “Shake” – Go Gracious. Imagine if The Hold Steady and The Naked and Famous tried to write a song together. That sort of jubilant-yet-rueful mix is exactly what you get with Go Gracious’ debut tune. Summer jam for real.
2. “History Walking” – Amy O. Noodly, doodly, and propulsive, this chipper indie-rock tune pushes all the right buttons for “infectious summer listening.”
3. “Magic” – Amy Stroup. Beachy but not in the traditional ways, this tune makes the most out of a loosely funky bass line and rattling percussion. Stroup’s easygoing vocals strengthen the chill vibe.
4. “Molly” – Ratboys. This fascinating mixture of alt-country, female-fronted pop-punk, and indie-pop subverted my expectations at every turn. Great stuff.
5. “Small Space” – Tall Friend. Bright but with a hazy, rainy sheen, this lo-fi, unassuming indie-rock/indie-pop tune reminds me of warm afternoons on green grass.
6. “Your Voice on the Radio (feat Laura Gibson)” – Dave Depper. OH man, chipper indie-pop basically doesn’t get any better than this. The inimitable Laura Gibson on guest vocals, bouncy bass guitar, tropical vibes, great vocal melodies, the whole shebang. More please, thank you.
7. “We Must Stand Up” – Har-di-Har. Wow, is there ever a lot going on in this song. This song rockets from synth-pop to angelic folk to complex indie-pop to wubby post-dubstep and points beyond. If Muse was ostensibly an indie-pop band, they might come up with this wild and clever track.
8. “What the Open Heart Allows” – Brad Peterson. Sometimes you’ve got an inventive, layered indie-pop arrangement that is heavy on tension and it still gets outshined by a massive, soaring vocal melody in the chorus. This is a good problem to have.
9. “Shame” – Lushloss. A solid two minutes of deconstructed down-tempo rainy-day indie-pop that’s heavy on bass guitar and layering. The tune appears unassumingly and ends suddenly, making the song even more endearing.
10. “Waking Up” – Illyin Pipes. All genres can be amazing, no matter how “done” they are. This is a full-on synth-pop piece with no big quirks–ambient synths, fuzzy arpeggiator work, rattling drums, woozy vocals–and yet it sounds amazing and fresh.
1. “I Wish I Was a Bird” – Luke Rathborne. Builds a cathedral of sound: a stomping, huge-screen affair that manages yet to have low-key fire embedded in it and a humble, earnest vocal performance. This sort of powerful songwriting and production is uncommon and wonderful–it’s indie-rock that manages to be slightly out of phase with the radio (it’s 8:33!) but oh-so-delightful for lovers of the genre. Anyone still rocking the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s “Maps” will be all up on this, or anyone who would wonder what Josh Ritter’s “Thin Blue Flame” would be like in indie rock format.
2. “DaDaDa” – secret drum band. I listen to a lot of music while I’m reading or writing. Great songs make me love what I’m working on more. The best songs make me stop what I’m doing and just listen. “DaDaDa” is a perfect amalgam of tons of different percussion elements, low-mixed synths, and the occasional found sound/vocal yawp. They manage to make these basic, skeletal pieces of music into a deeply compelling piece of polyrhythmic indie rock.
3. “Gone Away” – Stolen Jars. Turns fluttering flutes and squealing horns into urgent indie-rock, a la The Collection. The subtle, insistent press forward that underlies this track is a rare thing to capture.
4. “People Like You” – Thumbnail. This tune strides the line between American Football-style emo and old-school indie-rock (pre-major label Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie): complex drums, semi-mathy guitar lines, soft vocals, and gentle trumpet come together into a propulsive-yet-dreamy track.
5. “Tree Trunks” – Basement Revolver. The groove locks in and commands headbobbing. The lurching, loping, slow-moving-train of this indie-rock arrangement contrasts excellently against the intimate female vocal performance.
6. “Part3” – grej. Ominous piano, layered percussion, and stabbing flutes create a tense, atmospheric track the likes of which you would hear in a suspense film.
1. “Desultory” – Arthur in Colour. Jubilance seems always so difficult to singers with low voices (like Matt Berninger of the National and Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields), and Arthur Sharpe is no exception. You can tell he’s jubilant, though, because the multi-layered technicolor indie-pop that he’s fronting is hard to describe in terms other than “exuberant,” “bright,” and enthusiastic. It’s the sort of thing that has marimbas, synths, organs, jaunty guitars, and a constant male/female duet all somehow coming together into one beautiful synthesis.
2. “Outta Cash” – Bon Villain. There’s a subtle grit to the vocals here that remind me (ever so slightly) of bands like The Hold Steady. The music is a smart mix of bubbly MGMT electro and streamlined, slicked-back Cobra Starship electro. It feels very now and very on.
3. “Give Me Your Love” – Briana Marela. Chirpy synths, clicky beats, and stomping toms allow Marela’s smooth melodic lines to create a nice tension in this lush, expansive electro-pop tune.
4. “Fat Tuesday” – The AV Club. A funky, jazzy instrumental interpretation of the New Orleans Brass Band sound that’s so much fun. This retains all the spirit of the Big Easy with a slight twist, which is cool.
5. “Witches” – Good Kid. The frantic, youthful vocals of early Vampire Weekend meeting the stylized guitar-heavy indie rock of the early ’00s (The Strokes) results in a skittering, punchy, enthusiastically fun indie-rock track.
6. “Please” – Josiah and the Bonnevilles. Following up their impressive debut EP, Josiah and co. return with a song that’s equal parts ragged Dylan-esque folk song, clanging Americana rock (a la The Low Anthem), and Springsteen. The falsetto-laden chorus is just great. The conclusion of the video is intriguing, too.
7. “Dear Science” – Blimp Rock. Blimp Rock is a endearingly absurd band (they tried to sue the Toronto Blue Jays, their stated purpose is to raise money for a blimp), and this song is no different: a duet/discussion between the lead singer and “science” (as played by a theoretical physicist who is not taking any shit from the lead singer). The quirky indie-pop-rock fits the content to a T.
8. “Moonlight Dancing” – Vito. It’s like Dashboard Confessional’s romanticism, a pop-punk band’s vocal melodies, and indie-rock mid-tempo guitars fused into a perfect simulacra of my teenage experience. The first time I heard this song, I felt like I’d known it forever.
9. “Jimmy” – GREY \\ WATER. I’m not really into the disco revival, but indie rock song is disco smashed to bits, mixed with modern dance rock and indie pop vocal melodies, stuck in a blender, and then baked into something new. This is how you do genre mixing right. Dang.
10. “Dreamin’” – bellwire. Back when country and rock’n’roll and Brill Building pop were all intermingled, some really lovely ballads emerged. This track follows in that vintage-drama vein, tapping into modern (but no less dramatic; vintage pop included a lot of death and debauchery, for real) concerns.
11. “Rich in Love” – Afterlife Revival. Pulls the Neil Young trick of feeling both rickety and solid in its folky/acoustic/pop-type arrangement. The vocal performance is evocative, but it’s the oh-so-perfect melodic instrumental bridge that really sells this tune.
12. “Change It All” – Harrison Storm. Smooth, lithe, stark, groove-laden, and yet high-drama, this song packs a lot into its shape. You may think you’ve heard this acoustic/adult alternative all before, but there are surprises up Storm’s sleeve for those who listen intently.
13. “Heart and Mind” – Courtney Marie Andrews. Andrew’s passionate alto and thoughtful lyrics ring clear as a bell here. This stripped-down performance feels like a breath of fresh air.
14. “Runner” – Jon and Roy. A humorous, Wes Anderson-inspired video accompanies a chipper acoustic pop tune that starts out in the pocket and never leaves. Jon and Roy have been plying the trade a long time, and it shows in their easy confidence, infectious melodies, and strong groove throughout.
15. “Cold (Trevor Ransom Remix)” – Bjéar. Ransom transforms the original “build from solo piano to giant pop conclusion” chassis and totally reinvents it as a spacious ambient track that takes the listener on a walk through a dark-yet-wondrous forest.
1. “Promise Land” – Sinners & Saints. Big-hearted, foot-stompin’, smile-inducing alt-country complete with stand-up bass, fiddle, and harmonica. The vocals are infused with a sweet, earnest quality that is not usually found in this type of music. Remember when the Avett Brothers were a ramshackle, upstart duo that could make you holler and cry? It’s like that. Great stuff.
2. “Let You Be” – Gian Luca & the Oak. Italy by way of London? You’d never know it from this thrilling slice of upbeat, major-key Americana. A vivid fiddle and enthusiastic stand-up bass create the frame for joyous harmonica and Luca’s low vocals. This is just a ton of fun.
3. “Evergreen” – Builder of the House. This warm, open, happy folk tune plays like an inversion of Fleet Foxes (all love to the FF): the harmonies expand the soaring reach of the song instead of getting close in, and the arrangement is spacious. There’s room to sit with this, to hear every instrument and to clap along. If you’re into Lord Huron, this will be immediately interesting.
4. “Bait My Soul” – James AM Downes. Somewhere between twinkly folk music and bouncy indie-pop lands this lovely, dreamy track. The arrangement here is tight and engaging, wrapping me in a mood instantly.
5. “Behold” – J. Alan Schneider. Resonant, bass-heavy acoustic guitar picking with more than a bit of Appalachian melodic influence opens this track in a powerful way. Schneider’s whispery voice is a high tenor that contrasts nicely against the low end of the guitar, and that tension drives this emotionally-charged song.
6. “Sundial” – Kazyak. Good-natured full-band folk that recalls Lord Huron in its commitments to be fully involved in acoustic folk music but also fully involved in being poppy and fun. The song passes by easily, leaving me with a grin and good vibe.
7. “Falling South” – Lee Watson. If you’re up for a slice of Laurel Canyon/West Coast Country, Lee Watson has a perfectly-turned tune in the style for you: creaky vocals, cooed background vox, weeping pedal steel, and a walking-speed acoustic guitar strum.
8. “Slow Sip of Whiskey” – Eric Barnett. A deep voice and a fingerpicked guitar layered with metaphors aplenty: fans of David Ramirez will rejoice over Barnett’s back-porch country-folk work here.
9. “The Birds and You” – Miles Horn. Fans of indie-soul like the Antlers will find much to love in this stripped-back, romantic, bluesy ballad. The vocal performance here is strong and clear.
10. “The Way to You” – Elliot Porter. Calls to mind Brett Dennen and Passenger, emotional acoustic songwriters who ride the line between folk and adult alternative. Porter’s chorus and big outro are both catchy and impeccably arranged for maximum effect.
11. “Comfortable” – The Washboard Abs. A perfect companion for a rainy day, this loping, downtempo acoustic pop tune has all of the hazy, slackery spirit of lo-fi recording without actually sounding fuzzed out (which I count as a total benefit in this case).
12. “Heartbeat” – Almond&Olive. It’s hard for me to get tired of fingerpicking and close harmonies. This beautiful, relaxing tune comes off like a more folk-oriented version of The Weepies, which is always a good thing. I love the horn inclusion at the end.
13. “If Heaven” – Mystery Loves Company. Ostensibly a song about what the songwriter doesn’t want to see in heaven, the song ends up being a statement of what the band believes is vital and good in the world. The acoustic pop song structure is accompanied by a lovely cello performance.
1. “Schopenhauer in Berlin” – Emperor X. Those who are into singers who cram too many words and so many references into a song and yet somehow come out with indie-pop gold (read The Mountain Goats, the Weakerthans, the Rural Alberta Advantage) will find a huge amount to love in Emperor X. This track is fidgety, subtly chaotic, weirdly emotional, and overall a wild trip that has me absolutely stoked for this record.
2. “Wake Up with the Sun” – Little Lapin. A chipper, summery little ditty that calls to mind Lilith Fair, Counting Crows, and other cheery ’90s acoustic pop. I couldn’t help but clap along. Totally fun.
3. “Hey Leanne” – Frozen Houses. The reverb and rhythms of the guitar recall the ’80s, and specifically Graceland. The flute-esque pad synths are vintage too, but they’ve been so appropriated by Vampire Weekend that there’s a touch of them in here too. But it’s a less hectic song than both of those outfits are fond of, as the lead singer uses a gentle, calming voice to sing long, smooth vocal lines.
4. “Bones” – Fairmont. The kickoff to their 9th (!) studio album, this indignant blast of sound distills what Fairmont does best into 4 minutes and 10 seconds: melodic-yet-somewhat-sinister guitar-driven indie rock with roughed-up vocals and an eye toward the theatrical.
5. “Dynamite Quartz” – Bass Lions. It’s not often that a song puts me at a loss, but this track is a blend of a lot of things that don’t usually go together and yet somehow work perfectly: traditional pipe organ playing, a harpsichord-esque / autoharp thing, ominous subterranean bass notes, strings, perky percussion, and expressive Arcade Fire-style vocals. Or maybe they just feel like Arcade Fire because there’s so much going on. Either way, this is a veritable maelstrom of stuff, and somehow it turns out into a snappy, inventive indie rock tune.
6. “First of May” – James Irwin. Heavily reverbed, distant guitars create a ghostly presence over a fuzzed-out bass chug while Irwin’s feathery vocals intersect the two. The results are a dreamy form of indie rock that is actually equal parts dreamy and rocking.
7. “Screen Time” – Banana Gun. Funk is not my usual stomping grounds, but Banana Gun fuse funky bass lines and a jazz-infused horn section with slick, tight rock music a la Cage the Elephant, et al. (which isn’t usually my province either). Sometimes a song comes out of nowhere and just gets everything right, and even people not in the genre can hear it.
8. “R.O.S.E.” – Brother O’ Brother. Imagine if the Black Keys had never gone stadium rock and instead got more and more furious in their vocal delivery. That’s basically what BOB is, give or take a Marshall stack or three. This track is a pretty great intro to their raw, super-charged garage blues on 11.
9. “Fruitfly” – Heavy Heart. This is a pitch-perfect ’90s female-fronted modern rock tune, which means that it’s low-slung, catchy, and nearly deadpan in its vocal and instrumental delivery. The video is a mishmash of drugs, junk food, pizza, kids, and static that also perfectly recalls the ’90s. It’s the sort of video that has to be done perfectly to not be derivative, and Heavy Heart pulls it off.
10. “Gentle Release” – New Tongues. It’s hard to keep me interested in post-hardcore these days, as I’ve gotten pickier and pickier with the heavy music I listen to. New Tongues are one outfit that I can count on to mix melodic elements, brittle distortion, brute force, hollered/screamed vocals, and long run times in intriguing ways. This latest track is spot-on: a 7.5-minute journey through different dynamic levels and arrangements that yet never feels like it’s overstayed its welcome. Anyone who can write almost eight minutes of post-hardcore work without getting repetitious is doing a great job. Mad props.
11. “Mississippi, Come and Take Me” – Syntax Club. Somewhere between the enthusiasm of Ra Ra Riot, the dreamy vocals of Death Cab for Cutie, and the beachy sound of The Drums is this charmingly layered indie pop song.
12. “STRESS” – Kylie Odetta. Odetta has been reinventing herself over the past few years and seems to have landed on jazzy, piano-led soul. This latest cut mines that vein with some breathy sax playing counterpoint to her hiccuping piano line and lithe vocals.
13. “Eclipsed” – Diamond Thug. This impressive electro song rides on an intriguing arpeggiator pattern and a smooth, flowing, head-bobbing mood (even though the arrangement gets pretty complex!).
14. “Where the Birds Nest” – Alex Tiuniaev. Tiunieav expands his stark solo piano oeuvre into a dreamy ambient electro/chillwave space with some snappy, beat-heavy plunks and blips. It’s a head-bobber, for sure.
Those with a fondness for acoustic guitar work combined with simple, straightforward songwriting will find great satisfaction in singer, guitarist and songwriter Matt Record. Record has developed his craft over the last decade and a half, covering some of the most fertile musical regions in the United States. Originally from Plymouth, Indiana, he has been blowing on the wind of his music from there to Chicago, Indianapolis, Oregon, Los Angeles, and London. With the Black Swan EP, Record delivers a fresh take on life that settles firmly in the country and folk genres that many have grown to love.
The Black Swan EP is “a mixture of some songs I’ve written over the last 12-14 years that fit together very well and were more acoustic driven,” says Record. Not only did the songs take time, they were written in four states and two incredibly fertile music scenes. Once it was finally recorded, the release featured Record (Martin D-35 acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass, vocals), Andrew Madden (lap steel, keyboards, electric guitar), Paul Duda (bass), and Stephan Kohnke (drums and percussion).
The five songs of the EP are masterfully sequenced to feel like a sit down around a campfire or a fireplace. Opening with an aptly-named song featuring a simple sound, “Beautiful” is a love song singing the praises of real life with an almost Neil Young falsetto. Flowing from one song to the next can be a challenge, but it’s not hard for Record. “Black Swan” has an authentic “home, home on the range” feel punctuated by sparingly-used electric guitar. The newest song of the EP serves as a perfect title track. Restraint in the mix is key here for sure.
Record then strolls into “Insomnia,” which is reminiscent of some of the best from Charles Ellsworth and the Dirty Thirty mixed by the great Bob Hoag. “Dear Lord” firmly embraces the sentimentality of roots Americana, as the song fits neatly within the story Record is telling. The five-song collection ends with “Saddle Up,” which features the most rock vibes of the EP. The song ties together everything into a concise picture.
Great music can take sometimes take a lifetime in its creation; sometimes there’s an instantaneous connection to something real. Like the real-life landscapes that inspired this musical picture that he paints, Matt Record is the real deal here. Matt Record’s Black Swan EP, the follow-up to the 2010 release Kickbush, is out April 7th 2017 on Captain Beardo Records.–Lisa Whealy
Rarely have I had so much fun listening to a longhear than when listening to Lullatone‘s Thinking about Thursdays. The twee instrumental outfit, already an IC fave, recently compiled their “a song every Thursday in 2016” project into one big album of 52 songs. Their twee instrumentals are brilliant as ever, but their expanded sonic palette is what makes this album so wonderful.
Lullatone excels at making child-like music, turning toy pianos, music boxes, ukuleles, flutes and other small-sounding instruments into delicate and charming tunes (mostly in major keys). Their basic sound is something like The Album Leaf’s tender expansiveness mashed with Wes Anderson’s distinct, precise nostalgia. Openers “trying something again (again)” and “a photograph from the day you were born” stick to this script, creating memorable entries in the Lullatone oeuvre. This type of chipper, bright, clever song appears throughout the album; collectively, they are proof that Lullatone has mastered their craft and yet not exhausted it.
Things get even more exciting as they spread their wings. “how frost grows” signals a widening of their sonic scope, as a slurring, glacial, distorted guitar creates a desolate post-rock landscape. “cooped up at home with a fever and a tape loop” is just that: a hazy, tape hiss-laden fever dream that reminds me of a vocal-less version of The Microphones. “two turn tables and a casiotone” is a fun riff on the titular concept, while follow-on “how i broke my parents’ record player (when i was five)” is even more beat-heavy, landing somewhere between instrumental hip-hop and The Postal Service. “aboard Korean Air flight 742 to Seoul” continues what is ultimately a four-week beat fancy, adding stuttering snares and a melodic hook to a cherubic synth.
Things get even more exciting from there: “puddles full of petals (of Sakura)” combines harp, East Asian melodic ideas, and video game soundtrack drama (one of two back-to-back Asian sonic entries); “father-son adventures” has a jaunty, spry electric guitar line that will please any fan of major key post-rock a la Delicate Steve or Fang Island; “concrete waves” is filtered through a dense, stylish mesh of DJ Shadow. Other referents (real or imagined) include Matt and Kim, klezmer music, elevator music/vaporwave, and chillwave. I won’t spoil all the surprises (there are 52 songs!!), but suffice it to say that this is a great collection with almost no dead weight. Beyond the lovely individual songs, there’s a subtle joy in listening to a whole year of someone’s creation in what seems like chronological order, tracking through the seasons with the moods and titles of each song.
Thinking About Thursdays is that rare release that combines serious composition, thoughtful moods, intriguing instrumentation, quality sonic diversity, and out-and-out fun. It’s an incredible release, and it’s one of my early contenders for album of the year. Highly recommended.
Life can be a stark gritty landscape dotted with hope and heartache, but dreams of another tomorrow will bring you back. The American West captures the bleak beauty of Steinbeck’s America with debut album The Soot Will Bring Us Back Again, allowing listeners to immerse themselves in a dust storm of roots Americana music.
The album had humble beginnings. Zeltzer immersed himself in his songwriting as caretaker at an organic farm in Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco. Living in an Airstream made these songs real, haunting, and alive. The Soot Will Bring Us Back Again was recorded live to two-inch tape in three days at The Hallowed Halls in Portland, with the help of engineer Jordan Richter (Band Of Horses, Legendary Shack Shakers, Plastic Ono Band). Not a bad way to start.
Matthew Zeltzer and Maria Maita-Keppeler create magic together in a harmonic mesh with guitarist Will Haas, bassist Lewi Longmire, drummer Erich Spielmann, and keyboardist Benjamin Nathan O’Brien. The group of musicians assembled here fit together like a wagon train scouting up ahead. No one element instrument stands alone except for Zeltzer’s voice, which leads the music with a graceful, light hand. Standout “Ghost Town” shows off another important element of the album: Maita-Keppeler and Zeltzer work really well together. (Both have supported each other with appearances on each other’s work.) The Soot would be an echo of something great without the pair.
The band delivers an authentic dustbowl vibe, bringing stark images to mind like a Dorothea Lange photograph. Pedal steel shines on “Ritalin” shifting gears into harmonies that tug at the soul. “Ritalin” embraces the folk roots feel brilliantly. “Heart of Stone” is solid country, as angst-filled listeners can feel the rain coming down. “Patience, Young Conquistador” shines a light on the simplistic finger picking from Zeltzer illuminating the challenges from a land that was raped and working to be reborn. The attention-grabbing “Voices” creates an uptempo country-rock ramble with an urgency that stands out to the ear. Lyrically, it hearkens back to the near-apocalyptic destruction of central California land.
The lyrical quality shines elsewhere as well: “Roadsick Blues” and “Westward Man” showcase the masterful lyricism on this release. The latter has a chorus that demands attention: “He’s a shipwreck/He’s a bounced check/He’ll cut you down in the muddy street/He’s a tin can/He’s a fake tan/If you can read his lie you know you’re halfway there.” It’s a stellar mash of Townes Van Zandt and a present-day warning, like smooth bourbon going down smooth at the end of a long night. In the land of longing, “Looking For You” encompasses the sweet indie vibe, like a bee that cannot find the blossom on which to land. The language of longing and love take on different objects of affection with a cool lounge singer feel. Intimacy is the prize here.
Sometimes a listener just does not want a story to end. Such is the case here on the debut album from The American West. Coming to the end, “Let Me Love You Like A Pauper Does” pleads for a love that certainly suggests that fans will tire of the troubadour and his saga of life. The thing is: that’s not true. The Soot Will Bring Us Back Again is adding to the Great American Songbook, and we can only patiently wait for the next volume. Get yours March 17th, 2017.–Lisa Whealy
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.