Paper Canoe Company‘s Beanstalk Jackis an adventurous, ambitious work. It’s a concept album about the fairy tale of Jack and the Beanstalk. It’s pitched as a kid’s album (as a concept album about a fairy tale might be), but it’s a complex piece of work that transcends that pigeonholing. The band isn’t afraid to indulge all their ideas, as this album is 16 songs long. In short, Paper Canoe Company threw out all the rules and just made what they wanted. As a result of all these things, the album is a rewarding, engaging listen.
Starting from a grounding of acoustic folk (“Daydream”), Paper Canoe Company expands outwards in all directions: the title track and “Let Me Be” have zydeco flair via accordion inclusion, “Bestest Bargain” evokes the Simon & Garfunkel folk of “Scarborough Faire,” “Lucky Jack” is a hoedown, and “Fee Fi Fo Fum” is a Tom Waits-ian dirge. “All The Pretty Things” sounds like a dreamy ’70s pop cut, even. I won’t spoil all the surprises–there are tons, and they are fun to hear.
These tunes each serve a role in the narrative, but these aren’t showtunes–the closest the band comes is in the major/minor fluctuations and soaring vocal lines of “Look At Us Now,” where upbeat Jack tries to convince his downcast mother that the beans are actually valuable. I had a blast listening to this record–the diversity of musical styles made me think of Fountains of Wayne’s fantastic Welcome Interstate Managers. The many vocal performances throughout range from exuberantly fun to downright impressive, as well. If you’re looking for a fun record for anyone (or, I suppose, kids–the intended audience), Beanstalk Jackis a surprisingly good pickup.
1. “Mine/Yours” – Long Neck. The rattling fingerpicking, the female speak/sing delivery, and the rumbling enthusiasm of the guitar rock make this one of the coolest songs I’ve heard in a long time. I keep thinking of The Hold Steady but maybe that’s just me? 100% rad, regardless.
2. “all these worlds are yours” – HOLY. If you forgive the 10-car pileup of guitar distortion and drums that takes up the first 25 seconds of this tune, the the next 8.5 minutes are an indie-pop wonderland. There’s perky piano, sighing vocals, found sounds, layers on layers on layers, big drums, everything becoming ascendant, and then some more layers. It lives up to its runtime and will remind you of Spiritualized.
3. “You Are An Ocean” – Beams. Staccato drums accent the lead banjo line in a satisfying way. The rest of the song floats along as an indie-pop tune would, just with banjo. It’s a lot of fun.
4. “We Make Do” – Martha Ffion. “With an overwhelming sense of / making do” caps off the lovely chorus of this low piano-pop tune. It’s got bits of Regina Spektor and Lisa Hannigan in the stew, but it has an air of confidence that’s all Ffion’s.
6. “Forget Me” – Born Ruffians. Cheery, chipper, emotive indie-pop with gleefully yelpy vocals and effervescent handclaps. Fans of the vintage-y ideas of Stornoway or Bishop Allen will love this.
7. “Relay Runner” – Loma. The insistent beat of this indie-pop track anchors a song that wavers from major to minor key repeatedly. That beat has the sort of groove reserved for deep electronica tracks, but the band tempers that flow with mysterious, ethereal sounds, glitchy bits, and odd vibes. It’s a weird, intriguing track, like some sort of chopped-and-screwed Wye Oak jam.
Finishing out the year in the year is a tough thing to do. We got closer than ever before in 2017, but there’s still a few things to be wrapped up. Here are some of the last tunes of 2017, rolled in with some early returns from 2018.
1. “True Refuge” – Ezra Feinberg. This incredible instrumental track has all of the build of a post-rock song without any electric guitars and all of the exuberance of a Dan Deacon song without any synthesizers. The arrangement is all layered acoustic guitars and piano, which is just amazing. It’s a warm, sun-dappled drive in the country; it’s uplifting in so many ways. Highly recommended.
2. “Tiny Moses” – The Rough & Tumble. The harmonica and accordion come together mellifluously to almost sound like a harmonium–one of my favorite sounds in all of folk. This folky, country-inflected acoustic tune will make fans of the Low Anthem sigh and swoon. The female/male vocal performances here are bright, strong, and memorable.
3. “Open Space” – Micah Olsan. There’s always room in my heart for a fingerpicked acoustic guitar, a distant pedal steel, and a pure voice. This is fantastic folk music.
4. “Little Sparrow” – Racoon Racoon. The vocal performance in this delicate folk tune is equal parts vulnerability and confidence, which is a powerful mix. The rest of the arrangement mirrors that blend, with individually tender sounds put together into a strong arrangement.
5. “Standing on a Corner” – Grace Basement. Alt-country that’s half-Jayhawks blueprint, half-Mojave Three dreaminess. If you’re into alt-country, you may have a flashback to the ’90s in the best possible way.
6. “Northern Town” – Fruition. Oh my goodness, that chorus. It’s short, but the vocal melody, the high harmonies, just everything about it is ace. It gave me shivers. There’s a great acoustic arrangement around that chorus, but whoa. Check this one out.
7. “World of Pain” – Phil Lomac. Some excellent groove-heavy percussion, lovely Wurlitzer, and grumbling guitar distortion meld in unique ways to give this folk a distinct vibe. Seriously, that drumming is tight.
8. “Town Hall” – Youth in a Roman Field. The first half of this tune is a pleasant folk tune led by female vocals from Claire Wellin (San Fermin). The second half bursts open into a horns/strings/vocals party, like vintage Arcade Fire or The Collection. It’s an impressive, throw-open-the-doors move for the second act, and it makes this tune a winner.
9. “Fragments” – Dane Joneshill. This swaying, lilting track fuses a contemporary set of singer/songwriter lyrics to music reminiscent of Josh Ritter’s “The Curse.”
10. “Holdin’ Back the Heart” – The Naked Sun. A jaunty, rollicking Americana/rock’n’roll tune that would make Ivan and Alyosha jealous and make Dawes turn its head. The pure falsetto is a really nice touch.
1. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas / Homeward Bound” – Cassandra Kubinski. A piano-led rendition of the forlorn standard segues right into the Simon and Garfunkel classic. How has this pairing not happened more often? A great mashup.
2. “City of David” – The Gray Havens. The indie-pop duo goes heavy vocals on this Christmas track, layering effects-laden waves of vocals on top of each other. It’s a suitably expansive, reverent, wide-open song.
3. “Linus & Lucy” – Steelism. It’s hard to take on a classic, but Steelism nails it. This rumbling, punchy, modern indie version of the Vince Guaraldi masterpiece is fun, quirky, and strong. Press repeat!
4. “Oh Holiday!” – The Lighthouse and the Whaler. Christmas + perky indie-pop is a winning combination almost every time. This one will make you shake shoulders and maybe even your hips.
5. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” – Lindby. Lindby never disappoints. The versatile, genre-hopping band has delivered a fairly straightforward take on the Christmas standard, but the be-bopping bass and fantastic vocal performances make it a strong contender. The following two tracks are also wonderful–you need to check them out too.
1. “Calliope” – Zorita. Sleek, thoughtful, emotional, carefully crafted–this is top shelf indie-pop. The horns that float effortlessly around the intricate guitar work are like the best icing you could imagine on an already-great cake. Highly recommended.
2. “Post-Youth Depression” – Joe Russell-Brown. Post-Pavement, post-Weezer slacker-rock that retains the slurry, easygoing nature of the vocals, the big guitars, and the youth-culture lyrics of both bands. The guitar melodies are great, but you already could have guessed that.
3. “Killing in the Name” – Brass against the Machine feat. Sophia Urista. A brass band takes the RATM standard-bearer and turns out their own huge, ferocious version. Sophia Urista is appropriately and excellently furious.
4. “Pistol Twisted Tongue” – Jack Ellis. Every time I think I’m done with guitar rock, a song comes out of nowhere and just knocks me flat. Ellis makes hard-charging guitar and frantic vocals sound like a revelation. This sounds way more like Clutch than it does the Vaccines, but hey, you never know when the song will move you.
5. “Blue Sun” – Hellens. Starts off with a full-on assault of shoegaze guitars, but mixes the male/female duo vocals up in the mix like an indie-rock song would in parts. (There are some distant/gauzy vocals as well.) It gives this quality tune some unique texture. The drums and bass also do a fantastic job of selling the song.
6. “Sometime” – Temples of Youth. Minimalist, deconstructed ’80s synth-pop that yet retains soul, emotion, and mood. The vocal performance breathes life into a well-crafted composition of skittering beats, icy synths and bonking synth noises.
7. “Say You Love Me Too” – Jonathan Bree. Is this cool or scary or both? There’s a great, loping bass line; ghostly synths; distant noises; rock-solid percussion; and oddly/perfectedly affected vocals that make “say you love me too” sound less like a come on and more like a threat. It’s definitely unique. The video, which uses morph suits to make all the performers seem like living mannequins, drives home the mood and the concept of the tune even more.
8. “The Fawn of Teal Deer” – Lucille Furs. Post-Beatles psych-pop that hits all the right notes vocally, lyrically, and in the strong guitar work.
9. “Brigands and Seafaring Landlubbers” – The Complete Set. Somewhere between ’70s psych, ’90s Brit-pop, and contemporary post-rock sits this intriguing instrumental track that features funky, roving bass.
10. “Archer Jane” – Nathan Felix. The orchestral composer takes a break from the ensemble to compose a synth-heavy soundtrack for a sci-fi movie. This opening track sounds like a cross between the eeriness of Tron and the sweeping adventurousness of a Star Trek theme.
1. “At Night” – Esther & Fatou. “Where do you go at night?” is the question that floats over a whirling, intricate composition that’s somewhere between a Fleetwood Mac tune and a contemporary orchestral piece. It is a seriously impressive piece of work. Highly recommended.
2. “Louise” – Bedouine. This track is positively hypnotic: lush strings, lilting nylon-string guitar, a lovely presentation of the Armenian language, excellent trumpet, and a strong rhythm backdrop sail me away to someplace mysterious and far away.
3. “The First Girl” – The Good Graces. Pedal steel is hard to use because it is so incredibly associated with country. But here, in this singer/songwriter/indie-pop/folk/indie-rock/whatever tune, the pedal steel is a fantastic piece of work. This ’90s-influenced piece is weightless in some places and weighty in others–deft transitions and solid songwriting make it work.
4. “All These Trees” – The Welcome Wagon. WW drops a rock’n’roll song (heavy on the roll, though–this is pretty vintage-y rocking) that is abruptly interrupted by a dream sequence that Sufjan himself would be envious of. All in all, a thoroughly solid indie outing.
5. “Tell Me” – Sonder Saloon. There’s something permanently endearing to me about blasting out of a quiet section of song with a wall of harmonized vocals. The band does that beautifully here, and includes some tambourine and glockenspiel for good measure in this wintry folk tune.
6. “Mistery Town” – Stolen Apple. Hazy, rain-soaked indie that evokes the sense of wandering the damp streets of a major urban space at night. The low-slung guitar reminds me of Mojave 3, which is always a good thing. A very cool track.
7. “Hollow” – Maria Kelly ft. Ailbhe Reddy & LAOISE. This is a fluttering, emotionally vulnerable track with a strong vocal performance. It’s ghostly and memorable.
8. “The Falling Peach” – Kye Alfred Hillig. Hillig’s Fossil is an sonically intense, lyrically angry album that shows a lot of people trying to make their way through or thinking back on bad situations. The lyrics hold true here–the mood of this track, though, is ominous rather than blistering. There’s a lot of bass, careful percussion, and eerie sounds holding out off in the distance. Not the most representative track of the record, but one of the most intriguing for readers of this blog.
9. “Running Through My Mind” – Jacob Thomas Jr. Fans of Peter Bradley Adams and Josh Rouse will love this smooth, easygoing ode to a lost love.
10. “Let It Roll On” – Alex Hedley. Some burbling acoustic guitar sets the troubadour mood, and then Hedley’s Joe Pug-esque howl turns up the intensity. The harmonica ties it all up in a pretty package. Hedley is one to watch.
11. “Horace in Brighton” – Bird in the Belly. If the song title or the band name didn’t tip their UK roots, the charming, engrossing lead female vocal performance will. And if that doesn’t prove it, they use the word “pantaloons.” The folk tune that supports these vocals is lithe and strong.
12. “Honey” – Nick Galitzine. Dusky, soul-inflected, and expansive singer/songwriter work that has impressionistic echoes of Ray LaMontagne.
13. “Liviandad” – Juan Maria Solare. This tune is a delicate, exploratory piano piece that revels in space. It plays with the ear’s perception of major/minor keys throughout, which is clever and enjoyable.
14. “Palliative” – Theo Alexander. Fans of John Luther Adams will find the towering clouds of sonics that Theo Alexander has put together incredibly pleasing. Layer upon layer of piano and synths creates the ability for the song to sound like rushing water, as well as like being underwater. It’s a beautiful landscape.
Clem Snide always seemed a little out of phase with the rest of the world: not quite country, not quite indie, heavily literate, deeply ironic, secretly hopeful. I loved their work, and it’s with great joy that I report this: Monk Parker has picked up their torch and run with it. But that’s only a starting point, as Parker’s slow-paced, dense, expansive, heavily atmospheric take on country music blazes its own path from Snide’s starting point. Crown of Sparrowsis thus one of the most exciting alt-country releases of the year.
Parker’s voice is smooth and often elegant, leading the way through lush arrangements of pedal steel, broad horns, ambient sound (as in the opening of the title track) and more. The songs are melancholy but not depressing–they have an internal, almost subterranean, jubilance due to the vibrance of the arrangements. The songs are also long. There are only six tunes here in a runtime of over a half hour. This gives tunes like the title track and “Oh Cousin” the time they need to produce their magic. Hopefully Monk Parker will capture country’s attention the way Clem Snide never did–if so, country has another ship to add to the armada of new artists pushing country forward in unique ways.
Ghost and Tape‘s Vár is a perfect album to feature after Parker’s work. It is a warm, delicate, open-hearted ambient album that sounds matches some of the warm, patient qualities of Parker’s work. It is an album of intense detail and careful attention to the whole experience.
For example, the album art is some of the most fitting I’ve seen on a record this year: the colors are bright yet sun-dappled, the petals floating away convey a weightless feeling, and the image looks very sharp but starts to get a little soft as you get closer and closer. These are all apt descriptions of the music itself, from the drone of “Eostre” to the sound recording of walking through a forest (“hatch”) to the ocean waves and synth waves of closer “Seabird.” This is a beautifully calming record, a place to clear your mind and be made aware of the beauty around you. If you’re not into ambient music, this is a great place to start learning about how ambient can be amazing.
Lis the sound of a musician pushing himself. Holy ’57 knows how to write great Vampire Weekend-inflected indie-pop songs, and L does not disappoint on that front (“Water // Chrome,” “Canary,” “A Fragile Thing,” “Alison, Pt. 1”). Each of them have bouncy rhythms, clever arrangements, hummable melodies, and bright moods.
Placed around this very solid collection of pop tunes are interstitial found sounds [“(voicemail)”], instrumental variations on a theme (“Alison, Pt. II”), an ambient album coda (“Walkie Talkie Reprise”) and a fantastically ambitious opener track called “Bombay – Nairobi – London (Repeater).” The first three elements I mentioned there give the release heft–they make this into a total artistic idea instead of just a bunch of tunes. The fourth is where the total artistic idea begins.
“Bombay – Nairobi – London (Repeater)” is a long, complex instrumental tune that draws in elements of ambient, indie-rock, jazz, afrobeat, and more. There are towering horns, shimmering synths, and melismatic vocals amid the more-layers-than-you-can-shake-a-stick-at. The instruments are the backdrop to the dramatic life story of songwriter Alex Mankoo’s grandmother, told autobiographically through a recorded interview. It’s an impressive, engrossing opening track that leads the way into the rest of the mini-LP. If you’re into adventurous work that pushes the bounds of pop but also delivers some solid pop tracks along the way, go for this one.
Yellow Feather‘s “Lucille” video is a warm, goofy, good-natured clip that features the wanderings of band leader Hunter Begley in a cardboard bird outfit, a gold (yellow?) feather necklace, and underwear. (Okay, also socks/shoes.) He makes his way out of a forest, over a bridge, into a derelict barn, through an outdoor market, and finally on top of a boxcar. There’s also a kicker at the end that gives some hint as to what’s actually going on in the clip, but I’ll let you discover that yourself.
The song itself is almost as good-natured as the clip itself; it’s a gently honky-tonkin’, loping Americana tune a la Old Crow Medicine Show. The bouncy arrangement contrasts with the wry, regretful lyrics, displaying the remorse that comes of realizing (and re-realizing, and re-realizing) you weren’t the good one in the relationship.
The vocal delivery from Begley is perfect: there’s a touch of the shame he’s singing about around the edges of the lines, but also enough buoyancy to keep up with the major key arrangement. It’s a great song to go along with a great video.
“Lucille” is the lead single from And Gold, which drops tomorrow, December 1.
1. “Alabama Dissonance” – The Bowling Alley Sound. As a person who has felt the tensions of being an outsider living in Alabama, I can affirm that there is a lot of Alabama Dissonance. The instrumental post-rock track here displays some of those emotions via a jarring, off-kilter, start/stop tune full of found sound and sudden shocks. There’s also a banjo, for good measure. It’s a wild, unusual experience.
2. “The Things We Let Fall Apart” – Sontag Shogun and Moskitoo. Fans of Jonsi’s most ambient work will love the wide-eyed, child-like wonder encompassed in this track. Makes me think of roaming through a wide, bright valley up between two mountains.
3. “Better” – Cayden Wemple. Sort of like Bright Eyes meets Sam Smith, this tune from Wemple has a folk-singer’s lyrical complexity, an alt-folkie’s lyrical specificity, and well-done contemporary acoustic singer/songwriter sonics. A very exciting track–Wemple’s one to watch.
4. “Vultures on Your Bones” – Felsen. Pushing back on the technological imperative narrative is deeply important to the work that I do outside this blog, so it’s with great interest that I heard this folk-rock tune asking for just that. The tune itself will be a hit with fans of old-school Dawes, as the melodies and instrumentation are a fantastic American roots rock melange.
5. “Lurking from the Sidelines” – Ira Lawrence. Lawrence returns with his “haunted mandolin”–punchy tunes created by distorting, manipulating, looping, and layering a single mandolin to the max. This, as you might imagine, creates a very unique sound with little bass and lots of open space. This particular track is an impressive demonstration of all that Lawrence is going for. Adventurous listening.
6. “First Day of My Life” – All Deep Ends. I very rarely feature covers at IC, but this one is such a giant transformation that I felt it worthwhile. ADE takes Bright Eyes’ delicate, tentative love song and gives it the full-on Deep Elm emo treatment: distant vocals, distorted guitars, thrashing drums, and a sense of desperation. It doesn’t sound over-the-top, as massive transformations can sometimes feel. Instead, it’s impressive.
7. “Wander” – Trevor Hall. I’m not sure I would have put Indian raga vibes, trip-hop influences, folk fingerpicking, glitchy vocal sampling, autotune, and raspy proto-rapping in one track, but Hall does that all excellently. That’s why Hall writes ’em and I don’t.
8. “Forget Forgive” – Someone. Intimate, close-quarters production allows the bass guitar and vocals to jump out of my headphones with an urgency that contrasts with the walking-speed tempo of this indie-pop tune. As a huge fan of deconstructed songs, this punches a lot of buttons for me.
9. “Sister, I” – Jesse Marchant. Marchant continues within his oeuvre of expressive, mesmerizing, slowly-unfolding singer/songwriter tunes. Quiet but intense, soft-spoken but with deep stores of emotion beneath the veneer, this tune (and Marchant’s work) is more than meets the ear at first. Dive deep.
10. “Maria Come Home” – Kevin Pearce. A subtly yearning, churning folk tune that celebrates Maria Callas, the famed soprano opera singer. The tune has a dense arrangement but a light feel overall: the tensions are beautifully resolved by strings that float above it all and tie the tune together.
11. “Secret” – Circumnavigate. If you’re the sort of person that gets super-excited about a cappella codas, you’re going to be all over this svelte folk track with just that type of ending.
12. “For They Who Had to Go I” – Klangriket. This solo piano elegy for those lost in the Stockholm terror attack this spring is a fitting tribute: mournful yet hopeful, light yet with heaviness around the edges of the lines, stark but also warm.
1. “Boys Will Be Boys” – Stella Donnelly. The spartan songwriting here gives a perfect contrast to Donnelly’s powerful vocals. The song itself is a knockout without even considering the lyrics; pairing the song with her harrowingly honest lyrics about rape creates a tour-de-force moment for Donnelly and what should be a deeply sobering reality check and call to action for all men (myself included).
2. “Maria También” – Khruangbin. This unclassifiable, incredibly cool instrumental track features elements of Middle Eastern music, some vaguely surf-rock overtones, and found sound celebrating the role of women in pre-1979 revolution. The band notes that the video continues the celebration of that time and place via the performances of “a large network of artists, singers, dancers and songwriters who have been either exiled or silenced since the revolution.”
3. “Seattle” – Strangers by Accident. SbA has expanded from an acoustic folk duo to a folk-rock four-piece on the EP this cut comes from; this track, fronted by female and male vocals, features punchy drums, a speedy tempo, and even a mini guitar solo. But the highlight moment of the track is a breakdown to two vocals and an acoustic guitar, just like the old days–they haven’t abandoned their roots. It’s a strong hello to a new sound.
4. “So Kind” – Kat Myers and the Buzzards. Fans of easygoing West Coast country and female vocals will have a blast with this track. The tune slowly grows from a small tune to a rip-roaring country-rock track led by alternately blazing/delicate electric guitar and Myers’ confident vocals.
5. “Sail on the Water” – Molly Parden. A silky, suave ’70s-inspired singer/songwriter track that calls to mind Fleetwood Mac and other purveyors of dreamy, mystical work.
6. “Dominika” – Jordan Klassen. Somewhere between the woodsy folk of Fleet Foxes and the pristine folk arrangements of Mutual Benefit lands this lightly funky, somewhat proggy (!) folk tune. The video is a magnificent slice of ’90s tribute/parody.
7. “Shadow” – John Hufford. Timely and timeless, this acoustic track incorporates historic vocal harmony styles, contemporary lead vocal melodies, and never-gets-old synth/xylophone combo to create a song not quite folk, not quite indie-pop, and totally impressive.
8. “Throw Ourselves In” – Marsicans. Marsicans’ run of fantastic is unprecedented in IC’s hallowed halls–I’ve now covered six straight Marsicans singles, and they’ve all been amazing. This one has some ’00s pop-punk yells thrown into their peppy indie-guitar-rock for good measure. Everything else (insanely catchy melodies, big guitars, impeccable song structure) is still there. If you haven’t jumped on the Marsicans train, you need to do it as soon as possible. Preferably yesterday.
9. “Moments” – Everywhere. Dance-rock is tough to assess–sometimes over-the-top is great (think The Killers) and sometimes understated is boss (think Cobra Starship). This smooth, sleek track passes the basic test (“do you want to dance”) and also passes the higher bar (“is there something beyond a big dance beat going on”) with flying colors via an M83/Capital Cities-esque atmosphere.
10. “Superhero” – Fuzzystar. Power-pop that’s mellowed somewhat by indie-pop vocal aesthetics–but there are some mathy/emo-esque guitar theatrics to kick it back up a notch. Overall, it’s a fun, engaging pop tune.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.