1. “Just Like Moonlight” – Inner Outlaws. Mad respect for any band that puts the bassist at the forefront of the tune. Michael Cacciatore’s lumbering low-end powers this wide-open indie-rock soundtrack to the city at night, which is a deft mix between sparse environments and blown-out arrangements.
2. “The Devil” – Michael Feuerstack. There’s a certain amount of guts it takes to tell the bassist to play straight eighth notes for an entire song, as it naturally turns the song into a highway jam. Feuerstack’s road anthem is perhaps a demolition derby jam–an indie-rock song amped way up, reminiscent of the roiling, raging loudest moments of the Mountain Goats.
3. “A Little Ditty” – Sleaford Mods. There’s nothing quite like UK blue-collar rage taken out in spoken-word fury over a chugging post-punk backbeat. It feels timeless and fresh at the same time.
4. “Stationary Life” – Blis. Twinkly emo, yelpy vocals, references to parents’ house, underlying good-natured energy/aggression: Deep Elm would have been all over Blis. a decade ago.
5. “Dead or Alone” – Lull. “How loud can we play something and still make it sound sad?” “I don’t know, man. Let’s start from the noisiest and get quieter till we’re there.” In other words, shoegaze, indie-rock and emo revival all smashed together into mopey, angsty goodness.
6. “Heavenstay” – Shana Falana. Reverb-drenched, guitar-sculpted dream-pop reminiscent of School of Seven Bells, Ponychase, or other artists who try to engulf people in the sound of dreams.
7. “Open Water” – Lade. Trip-hop and The Verve-style Brit-pop collide in a twilight mix.
1. “Muscle Memory” – Laura and Greg. Do you miss the Weepies? Laura and Greg’s precise, delicate picking and close harmonies are augmented by just the right amount of indie affectation to end up with a totally charming outcome. This is sort of song that sticks in your brain and doesn’t let go. I can’t wait to hear where they go from here.
2. “Promised Myself” – Kylie Odetta. There’s an “towering pop vocals” button in my soul, and it doesn’t get pushed by Adele that often (come on, 25!). Kylie Odetta writes those torchy, piano-led dramatic tunes and backs them up with soulful, belting vocals. (The video is an unusual mashup of the “’80s pop star in empty building” trope and Odetta hanging out in a coffeeshop; welcome to 2015.)
3. “The Secret” – Sam Joole. Joole’s got the old-school piano ballad down, and his tender, gentle vocals sell the tune beautifully.
4. “Memoria No. 1” – The Greatest Hoax. TGH offers up more downtempo ambient, but this time with a more electronic bent. More Album Leaf, less Ólöf Arnalds, all chill and wonderful.
5. “Stormy Grey Eyes” – Knitted Cap Club. Meagan Zahora of KCC pushes the “dusky, cabaret dramatic vocals” button, which is right next to the “towering pop vocals” button. This could have been written in the 1920s, which I feel is a major compliment if you’re going to be in this genre.
6. “Four Sisters Part One” – Lowland Hum. This one’s a duet, but the female vocals are no less arresting for being lead by a tenor vocalist. The intimate harmonies on the phrase “use your voice” couldn’t be more perfect in this acoustic tune.
7. “In the During of a Moment” – The Lowest Pair. This duet is lead by the female alto vocalist, with the man chiming in on harmonies. It’s a stark, hushed recording that seems like it could be happening just behind you; the room reverb warms up the whole performance and fits perfectly with the tune.
8. “Hands and Feet” – Lowlands. Vintage rock’n’roll music has been getting a lot of love recently: the ’50s rock vibes here are cut by modern indie-pop melodies in the chorus. It’s an appealing mix. (And yes, I put Lowland Hum, Lowlands and The Lowest Pair in the same mix because seriously how often does that happen?)
9. “Let It Burn” – Magic Giant. MG’s new single is just as hooky, infectious, and enthusiastic as their previous rave-folk tunes. It doesn’t seem like dance music and folk-pop could come together so perfectly, but that’s why you listen to music, right? It always surprises.
I don’t post a lot of videos, but when I don’t post the few that I find interesting for a long while, I end up with a ton of them. So over the next few days there will be a lot of videos. Even rarer that posting videos is posting lyric vids, but I couldn’t resist these three for various reasons.
Falcon Arrow made a lyric video for “Landing Party.” But wait, you might think, Falcon Arrow is an instrumental band. You’re totally right. The lyrics are from Lisa Loeb’s “Stay.” Draw your own conclusions.
The Weather Machine took honorable mention for album of the year in 2014 with an album that came out in 2013. So it’s with great enthusiasm that I can announce that they’ll have a 2015 album, named Peach. The first peek is a lyric video for “As Long As We Get Along,” which is what I imagine Josh Ritter would sound like with an electric guitar turned all the way up.
Kangaroo Knife Fight’s lyric video for “It’s You” has impressive typography, a sweet color palette, and a mood that fits with the epic-leaning pop-rock song.
Indie-dance legends Matt and Kim have a new song called “GET IT.” This is all you need to know.
Some bands fit easily into categories, and some bands are Wall-Eyed. Kentucky Gentleman is a seven-song, half-hour blast of sound that combines garage rock, folk-punk, a nortena-style horn line, and cabaret pop (that piano intro to “Cold Black Ink”) into one brooding, foreboding experience.
It’s got punk energy, nasally vocals, and a textured approach to songwriting that goes completely against any stereotypes you might figure for the first two elements. Maybe it’s like a less-glam, more-folk version of My Chemical Romance, but I’m stretching here. Wall-Eyed’s well-developed sound is just tough to explain, which sucks if your job is putting that sound in words. It’s great, however, if you’re a listener interested in unique and interesting sounds.
Opener “Wise County” and follow-up “Cold Black Ink” set the darkly manic stage with performances fit for an alternate-universe version of Conor Oberst’s unhinged side. “Exile” flips the script and drops a perky alt-country tune that wouldn’t be out of place next to “Another Traveling Song” on I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. It even includes whistling! “I Want to Wreck Your Car” later returns to the major key in a ’50s-inspired pop song, but mostly Wall-Eyed wants to purvey tunes of grit and dusk here. And when you’re good at it, more power to you.
“Holy War” amps up the volume of the horn line and uses it as a blaring, stabbing hip-hop-style marching outfit. The whole song is built off the fat, staccato rhythms, giving the tune an inescapable swagger. It’s only 2:12, but you know it’s there for all 132 seconds. “Red Marks” follows it up, and it sounds like a murder ballad (!). The band ties it all together with closer “The Long Folk Revival”: five and a half minutes of booming arrangements, hectic vocals, and ominous vibes. It’s impressive.
Kentucky Gentleman is a release that is far more consistent than my ability to write about it would purport. These songs all hang together in a tight cohort: this is very much an album. Wall-Eyed has a unique sound that they’ve developed to a fine point here, and that pays off for them and the listener. If you’re into adventurous, seedy versions of Americana, you’ll be thrilled to hear Wall-Eyed.
North Carolina folk outfit River Whyless‘ tunes have no hard edges. The gentle, cooing folk on their self-titled EP has had all its difficult parts sanded down to a smooth, warm experience that wraps you in a comfy blanket of sound. Look no farther than opener “Life Crisis” to find that fuzzy feeling: the slow-building, slow-burning tune incrementally adds harmonium, glockenspiel, clapping, and dramatic cello to culminate in a ragged, earthy stomp that would make Fleet Foxes, barnraisers, and snowy-day-fireplace-watchers happy.
Look no further than “Miles of Skyline” to see how deeply the production values are imbued in their bones. The song has a rhythmic, metallic drumbeat that wouldn’t be out of place in an industrial tune, but they manage to layer so many harmonic plucks, swooning strings, trilling vocals and other pleasant vibes that it doesn’t sound out of place at all. It’s a frankly amazing songwriting trick, not unlike the moment in “All My Friends” when you realize that James Murphy has been playing the same piano line this whole time but it sounds different with every instrument that’s added.
In between those tracks are “Maple Sap” and “Bath Salt,” which both flesh out the River Whyless sound. The former starts off with a capella harmonies that remind me of Mountain Man, First Aid Kit and the like. Then it explodes outward into that Fleetwood Mac/CSNY sound that modern folk in the mid ’00s was so good at pulling together. It feels rustic in a beautiful way. The latter starts off so wonderfully crisp and bright that it sounds like the audio equivalent of turning a corner on a path and seeing a mountain pond ringed by trees with the sun shining in. The song floats.
River Whyless is a delicate, glorious wonder. It’s highly stylized to reach maximum beauty and calm, which seems to me the best reason to stylize anything. If you’re into modern folk, River Whyless is a must-know; this release is a must-have.
The seven songs of Cable Street Collective‘s The Best of Times are exciting: can’t-stop-moving, mood-lifting, first-time-you-heard-Vampire-Weekend exciting. The London six-piece plays ecstatic, polyrhythmic indie-pop that snags Afro-cuban rhythms and harnesses them in the service of giddy pop songs.
They don’t just do the upbeat, herky-jerky melodic style; they also know how to lay back on the beat, dub-style. The contrast of laying back and then pushing way to the front with syncopations creates an atmosphere of gleeful uncertainty: you don’t know what’s going to happen, but you know it’s going to be fun. Whether it’s the four-on-the-floor, rat-a-tat female speak/sing vocal delivery of “He’s on Fire,” the iconic Latin percussive vibes in “Yin & Prang,” or the Givers-esque perkiness of lead single “Can’t Take Me Under,” Cable Street Collective know how to give the listener what they didn’t know they wanted. They even slow things down a little for the last track, turning Vampire Weekend back into Paul Simon’s Graceland and knocking out an uplifting, “All These Things That I’ve Done”-style coda.
I haven’t even touched the lyrics: The Best of Times is an only-slightly-more-subtle version of Modest Mouse’s Good News for People Who Love Bad News: “It is the best of times / to be at number one / it is the worst of times / for all the other ninety-nine.” Social commentary and heavy-hitting dance grooves? Sign me up. The Best of Times is the best EP of the year so far.
Raleigh’s own Six String Drag is back after a 17-year recording hiatus with Roots Rock’n’Roll. The seminal alt-country band (they were kickin’ it with Ryan Adams and Whiskeytown in the ’90s) gets points for truth in advertising, as their new LP is a rollicking celebration of vintage rock’n’roll styles.
The track I have the great pleasure of debuting isn’t rock, though: “Hard Times, High Times” is a horns-driven soul tune. Vocalist and songwriter Kenny Roby leads the way with a lush baritone, encouraging a lover (but also pretty much everyone) to hang on through those hard times to get to the good ones again. The backdrop to that crooning vocal is a moving amalgam of motown horns and alt-country twang that works beautifully despite the seemingly disparate parts. It’s a beautiful, poignant tune that would work perfectly as a slow dance for people who don’t do saccharine, lovey-dovey stuff.
Here’s the last drop of tunes from January. On to February!
1. “Bad Blood” – Fred Thomas. This is the indie rock equivalent of an LCD Soundsystem song: deep bass groove, highly emotional lyrics in a speak/sing milieu, unexpectedly hooky melodies from unusual places. It’s basically the promise of indie rock 1979-1992 coming to fruition. Damn.
2. “Story of My Life” – Martin Sexton. Yes, this is a One Direction cover. It basically sounds like One Direction covered Martin Sexton. Yes. You need this in your life.
3. “Soul Shine” – Sam Joole. In addition to smooth singer/songwriter stuff, Joole does reggae. I don’t cover reggae, but this one is so smooth and includes such infectious horns that it stole my heart. Mad props.
4. “Bells and Buzz” – Matt and the McCues. If you were listening to early ’00s indie-pop (verses), ’90s alt-rock (chorus) and bass-heavy ’80s indie-rock (breakdown!) on three stereos at once, you’d end up with this track. It’s an unusual stew, but Matt and the McCues make it work.
5. “If Only” – Ships Have Sailed. If you’re looking for pop-rock with an artsy bent (but not too artsy, you want to sing along, right?), Ships Have Sailed is showing themselves as a solid bet. Get your head-bob and hum on with this great track.
6. “Following the Plan” – Bellwire. Noisy, jangly guitar-pop with Guided by Voices vibes and unironic “whoo-hoo-hoo!”s in it: who can ask for more in a pop song?
7. “Upside Down” – Lime Cordiale. If The Killers, MGMT and Muse all collaborated on a track, they couldn’t come up with something more towering than this.
8. “Pins” – Natalie McCool. Like a grittier Lorde, McCool is on the fast track to a lot of people knowing who she is.
9. “MAD” – Honey & the 45s. Funky, sassy, soulful, gripping: this band knows how to make that old-school soul live.
10. “Spat Out Spit” – Lady Lamb the Beekeeper. Lady Lamb is endlessly fascinating in her lyricism, song construction, and arrangements. Her newest track is no disappointment on any of those fronts.
11 “Hammer and a Nail” – Vienna Ditto. This slinky, enticing, cinematic track is like soul and film noir all wrapped into one. Awesome.
12. “Paying” – Sarah Bethe Nelson. If you’re a fan of long, minimalist folk-type tunes OR singer/songwriter women OR despondent rock tunes from the ’70s OR good things, you’ll be all up in this.
13. “Safe” – Emily Ann Peterson. Raw, deep emotion expressed in a piano-and-vocals one-take, complete with hall gorgeous reverb and all.
14. “Electric” – Föllakzoid. Y’know, I’m usually not into Chilean deep groove, psychedelic, bass-heavy dance vibes, but this one sucked me in and kept me going for twelve minutes. Twice. Going on a third time.
I’ve loved Teen Daze for a while now, because I have a deep and abiding affection for chillwave. Chillwave as a genre has splintered, with adherents linking up with genres they more fit with as their sounds mutate.
Teen Daze stayed firmly with the chillwave thing until A World Away, where he goes full electro on us. The six songs of A World Away draw heavily on arpeggiators, rhythmic patterns, reverb-heavy ’80s synth sounds, and clean lines to get the job done: the results are long tunes that place their lot with subtle change in repetitious themes. Opener “Sunburst” pairs some slow-moving chillwave bass against a neatly organized arpeggiator for a best-of-both-worlds mix; closer “I Feel God in the Water” drops the aggressive pulse and returns to the gently moving warm vibes that characterizes the earliest of chillwave tunes.
But in between, tracks like “Another Night” and “Than” smack listeners in the face with aggressive beats from the first second, assimilating them into a clubby mentality immediately; both tunes adjust and change over their 6 and nearly-9-minute runtimes, but the change in modus operandi is clear here. There’s still chillwave influences throughout, but Teen Daze is striking out in another direction on this release. Future work will let us know if this is the final form, or if the sound will keep changing.
Magic Giant‘s Free 3-Song EP is the catchiest, funniest, and most fun pop-folk EP I’ve heard in a long time. Not since Twin Forks’ debut has a band had such a laser-guided sense of how melodies catch an ear. But Magic Giant is much more than your average folk-pop outfit. This quartet combines influences from Jason Mraz, Mumford & Sons, Muse, and dubstep to create an irresistible brew.
Muse has long known that the strength of pop music is that the various genres can be infinitely combined, if you spend enough time making the sounds mesh together; Magic Giant is all in on that game. “Let’s Start Again” opens with a trad-style fiddle run, then segues into a Jason Mraz-style alt-pop verse and pre-chorus. The lyrics are both modern and timeless, talking about cell phones and the desire to start over with a lover. Then the chorus explodes in a stuttering sampled horn line, a blaring marching band line, a soaring fiddle, and wub-style synth bass. It seems like it shouldn’t work, but it works perfectly. It’s like Imagine Dragons, but folkier. It’s rave-folk, but it’s not even the best example of rave-folk on the EP. (The fact that there are so many disparate influences coming together is what makes this the “funniest” EP I’ve heard in a while.)
“The Dawn” starts off with Lumineers-style fingerpicking and group harmony vocals before bursting into a full folk-pop arrangement, pulling the arrangement back to pick up the tempo, then turning into full-on Mumford & Sons: banjo, roar vocals, thrashing drums. There are also some synths for atmosphere. It’s tough to explain how effective this song is, because it sounds fully derivative on paper and yet completely exciting in the ear. The last chorus has some more stomping, four-on-the-floor dance beats, but it’s still not the best rave-folk song on this EP.
Finally we get to “Glass Heart,” which is my early candidate (basically, my bar) for song of the year. It starts off with a slow-moving banjo line, doo-wop background vocals, and tape noise for effect. It suddenly transforms by adding a saxophone section (alto/tenor/bari, by the sounds of it) stabbing its way through the verse. The chorus drops a great vocal line, but it’s the next section that makes the song: a jubilant, exultant horn line combined with the techno beat, wub bass, and enthusiastic background vocals (you can guess what they are) that have me waving my hands in the air. Then they layer the chorus over the bridge and seriously I’m in a one-man headphones club.
Rave-folk isn’t a thing yet, but Magic Giant is seriously trying to make it happen. They’re a shoo-in to go on tour with Imagine Dragons, but I daresay they’re more exciting to me than Imagine Dragons. They’re not going to be winning any traditional Americana awards, but I kinda doubt that’s the audience they’re shooting for. If you’re into huge, shoot-for-the-charts pop songs, then Magic Giant should be in your ears. You can get the free EP by signing up for their e-mail list.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.