Builder of the House‘s Ornaments is way more Christmas in July than actually a December record. The acoustic album is warm, sunny, mellow, and happy. The tunes unspool at an easy pace, unhurried and unworried. If you’re in a bad mood and want to slowly rise out of it, I can’t think of a better record for it. The standout title track has a bit of Lord Huron in the melodic structure, while “When No One Is Here” feels like a mood-inverted Rocky Votolato song. Smooth, elegant, and yet crisp in its arrangements, this album just hits the spot for lazy summer days and aspirational winter ones. Highly recommended.
As jittery and frenetic as that last one was calm and relaxing, Emperor X‘s Oversleepers International is a feast for fans of that spot where pop-punk, alt-folk, indie-pop, literary studies, political science, and psychology intersect. In other terms, it’s as if late ’90s John Darnielle joined the Weakerthans instead of being compared to them.
“Wasted on the Senate Floor” is a verbal blitzkrieg married to a frantic acoustic-punk band; “Schopenhauer in Berlin” slows down the pace enough for the lyrics to be understandable but still requires you to look up who Schopenhauer is. Elsewhere, Emperor X goes all wacky Ben Folds (“Riot for Descendant Command”), references Anonymous and North Korea in a song called “Low Orbit Ion Cannon” (!!), and creates one of the weirdest travel journals ever (that also doubles as a breakup tune of sorts; it’s the title track, because of course).
Also there’s a techno-dance song and an ambient tune. The English town of Dorset and Vilnius, Lithuania are involved. The songs are crazy and memorable, musically and lyrically–what else could you ask for? Highly recommended.
Zach Winters‘ latest folk records were delicate-yet-intense constructions of great seriousness and import. On To Have You Around, Winters sounds downright loose. “Sometimes I Wonder” starts off in his traditionally ghostly acoustic vein, but turns into a more-than-subtly funky pop song by chorus. It is rad. “If the Sun is Shining” doubles down and gets a funky bass line on a stand-up bass and snazzily jazzy horns involved.
“Do You Really” starts off with the line “taking a shower with a known carcinogen” and proceeds to be a “chill out, stop worrying” song. “Love My Woman” is exactly what you would expect from the title and previous descriptions. Even the instrumental “Buffalo” has a chipper vibe. It’s a new look for Winters, and it’s a great one. If you’re looking for some acoustic-fronted, low-key-funky pop songs, look no further for a great time. Highly recommended.
Illustrated Manual‘s Wives’ Talesdraws on a deep well of gravitas to create an album of great dignity, calm, and (yet) emotional impact. The pieces that Jon Cooke used to make this deeply moving album are no more than what could be called spartan arrangements, a baritone voice, and incisive lyrical sets.
Cooke’s voice is in especially fine form here: he can sing a dramatic line with great gusto, but he can also inflect lines and syllables with subtle touches that are ultimately just as powerful. The gentle arrangements here surround an acoustic guitar and a mandolin, but this isn’t folk or bluegrass; this is singer/songwriter work with influences from those genres. Where much singer/songwriter goes astray into bland verse/chorus/verse monotony or generic emotionalism, Cooke’s vocal and instrumental melodies are crafted with a careful hand. Cooke’s willing to let things be spare instead of going for the big move; the results are single-set gems, with nothing to distract from the shine.
The lyrics here are huge: “Negatives,” “Stump,” “Boy in a China Shop,” “The Lumberjack” and “Ant on a Rubber Rope” are each incredible in their own ways. They tell stories of tragedy (“Stump” and “Boy in a China Shop” are deeply sad), change (“Negatives,” “The Lumberjack”) and religious imagery (“Ant on a Rubber Rope”). That’s basically the whole first half of record; the back half of the record is compelling as well.
If you’re into calm, mature, finely crafted acoustic music, you need to check out Illustrated Manual’s Wives’ Tales. Highly recommended.
Serious singer/songwriters have a tough row to hoe, as we’re largely past the point where a great lyric can propel you through bland instrumentation or vice versa. You’ve got to be on your game in both categories to make a dent, because there’s a lot of competition. MAITA is up for the challenge, as Waterbearerstands out in both categories. Her debut EP is a surprisingly complex, unusually assured five-song collection that draws similarities to Kathleen Edwards.
Maita’s assured alto makes the listener feel right at home from the first moment. The ease with which she handles lilting high notes and deft syllabic turns (e.g. the verses of “Geography”) are usually the province of artists with many more releases under their belts. It’s not just the vocals that show unusual maturity: the stark yet engaging arrangements are built around warm, clear acoustic guitar and subtle percussion. The bright, unadorned recording style highlights the vocals, guitar and percussion beautifully. It’s an impressive collection of songs from that angle.
The lyrics are another interesting angle. MAITA’s lyrical sense hews toward the Lady Lamb school of lyrics: there’s a clarity of thought that isn’t obscured by the complexity of language she uses. MAITA’s lyrics focus on relational complexity (“Kinder than Most,” “Too Tired to Love You”) but don’t fall neatly into the “love song” / “break up song” dichotomy that singer/songwriters can sometimes get trapped in when they write about relationships. Between the interesting topics and the precise wording, the lyrics are unusually attractive.
MAITA’s debut is an unusually sophisticated take on singer/songwriter work. The songs are interesting from multiple angles, making for multiple engaging listens. Highly recommended.
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.
Learning how to write in a genre can be a lifelong exploration, even for the most talented of musicians: Josh Ritter has made a whole career exploring the nooks and crannies of modern folk. The Mountain Goats spent a whole decade mastering the lo-fi recording before spending another 15 years doing indie-pop in tons of different styles. As a result of the difficulty and time required to be an expert in one genre, skepticism is warranted when an artist leaves their home genre for another.
This is an even more risky proposition when the target isn’t one new genre, but a multi-genre, broadly “pop” album. Yet despite these many cards stacked against Alex Dezen‘s second solo outing II, the former Damnwells frontman has created a fascinating, incredibly enjoyable album that dabbles in half-a-dozen pop genres. It’s proof of Dezen’s songwriting prowess that he’s not just great in one genre: he’s great in a bunch of them.
Dezen doesn’t try to hide that’s he indulging in any flight of fancy that comes his way: The album opens with “When You Give Up,” a Miami Vice-esque noir new wave tune. Dezen’s lithe voice shines here; not only could he sing the phone book and make it sound great, he could sing it in a wide variety of genres, as well. His knack for catchy melodies is on display everywhere, from the vocal melodies to acoustic guitar riffs to blocky synth blasts. “Holding on to You (Holding on to Me)” has more ’80s rock vibes–this time more Heart than Blondie (“Barracuda,” in particular). As ever, the chorus hook is polished till it glows–you’ll be mumbling “holdingontoyou / holdingontoME” for a long while afterwards.
From there on, Dezen goes in full-on world tour mode. “Randolph Tonight” is CCR-esque swamp rock; “I Am a Racist” is a straight-up doo-wop tune; “New York to Paradise” is a lost Billy Joel piano ballad; “Fuck or Fight” is an Eagles-style country-rock rambler. None of these songs feel insincere or mishandled; Dezen waltzes his way through each of them with a deft hand. It’s even more to his credit that he played almost every instrument on this album. It’s one thing to write a melody in a different genre, and it’s another thing entirely to have the chops on multiple instruments to pull off a whole arrangement in another genre.
My favorite tunes here are ones that pair excellent arrangements with incisive, carefully wrought lyrics. The REM jangle of “I Had a Band” relates anecdotes from a coming-of-age tale with the emotionally charged punch line “I never had much of a father / but I had a band / yeah, I had a band.” Anyone who’s been in a band will relate to the loving, wry tone that runs through the lyrics, whether or not your relationship with your father was great. IC had the distinct honor of premiering the Graceland-inspired “Everything’s Great (Everything’s Terrible),” which has a thoughtful set of lyrics about people in the contemporary moment just trying to make it through. The acoustic closer “The Boys of Bummer” is a lovely song about people who write sad songs by a person who writes sad songs. The dignity with which the characters meander through the tune makes me think of The Hold Steady.
Because of the herculean effort Dezen expends on every track, the album is only 9 songs. Yet in those nine songs he creates his own personal version of the radio, putting his imprint on pop music. It’s a rare album that manages to pull off all that Dezen does here: this is a fully-realized album on “extra difficulty” mode. If you like pop music in any way, shape, or form, you need to hear this album. Highly recommended.
1. “Savannah, Abandoned” – Lewis Dalgliesh. Shades of Jeffrey Lewis’s lyrical specificity and rapid-fire delivery play out over delicate, fingerpicked acoustic guitar. The rsults are a wonderful, Fionn Regan-style indie-pop tune.
2. “Letter for Ty” – ALFIE. The intertwining of two female voices and the bright production on this pristine acoustic pop tune make me think of another Scandinavian folk duo: First Aid Kit. Highly recommended.
3. “So Close” – Mama Ghost. A lovely, engaging alto voice leads the way in this excellent folk/singer-songwriter tune. The guitar, lead vocals, and harmony vocals mesh perfectly into an enveloping mood.
4. “Get On Your Skates” – Sandtimer. The gravitas of the vocal tone and delivery transforms a smooth acoustic tune into a stellar tune reminiscent of Alexi Murdoch.
5. “War on the Move” – Nice Motor. Hits all the right notes for a modern folk/alt-country shuffle: great vocals, lush harmonies, traditional (but not too traditional) arrangement, and overall good vibes.
6. “Caroline” – Johnny Nobles. Those who love James Taylor will find much to love in this light, slightly sad acoustic work.
7. “Eagle” – Noel. Brimming with tension but also exuding patience, this mesmerizing ambient/neo-classical piece is built on organ-like synth drone and beautifully airy lead synth.
8. “First Dance” – Doc Yates and the Kings Evil. The vocal melodies of this romantic ballad have a timeless quality to them, as if drawn from ’50s pop, old folk tunes, and/or modern indie pop.
9. “Head Over Heels” – Finn Kleffmann. Fuses acoustic Britpop vibes from the ’90s with modern acoustic pop melodies (and folk-pop “hey!”s). It’s suave and strong.
10. “Fa Fa Fa Fired” – Ryan Oxford. Lots of songwriters want to emulate The Beach Boys, but few do it as well as Oxford does here. The production is spot-on Pet Sounds (with some modern upgrades), but it’s the charming vocal melodies and delivery that sell this one.
Cindertalk‘sAll a Shimmer is an ostensibly-indie-pop album that transcends boundaries and genre labels, creating a mind-bending world of tensions: complex/spartan arrangements; huge/tiny lyrical concerns; vulnerable/brash emotive turns; dark/light moods; gentle/forceful instrumentation; subtle/powerful vocals. Jonny Rodgers’ work with tuned glass shows through consistently, but never dominates; instead, all the pieces come together into whirling, enigmatic, satisfyingly unusual pieces.
Rodgers has been working with tuned glass for a long time now, and the glass has transcended use as a side or even feature instrument. It is now an integral part of his work, an instrument that has expanded his sense of what is possible in a song. Rodgers can use the glass as a beautiful pad synth (“Ruminating,” “All A Shimmer”), a feathery mini orchestra (“You Will Suffer”), a guitar solo (“One of Their Own”), a lead riff [“Swing (Your Low Song)”], a marimba-esque percussion element (“Mutter Mutter Mutter”) and as a foil to Imogen Heap-style autotune (“Twitter Queen”).
It’s not just that the instrument is used in so many different ways; it has so thoroughly suffused Rodgers’ songwriting that the sounds and rhythms of other instruments are intertwined and influenced by the glass. The percussion here is muted throughout, hitting with punch but not snap; whether subtle electronic beats (“The Frozen Field”), distant kit drum (“Twitter Queen,” “Hurrah Hurrah,” “One of Their Own”), or something in-between (“Mutter Mutter Mutter”), the percussion here fits perfectly in against the glass and the rest of the indie-pop arrangements. The guitars, piano, and bass (often through bass keys) have similarly unique personality as a result of their interaction with the glass. The guitar is sometimes precise and patterned like glass-tapping, while the piano often lush yet precise in its stops and starts. This is a musical album like none you’ve ever heard before.
However, it’s not just the instrumental prowess that makes this an irresistible album. The vocal tone and vocal melodies are beautiful and catchy. (Those two adjectives don’t always go together.) From the forceful indie-rock attitude of “Mutter Mutter Mutter” to the yearning beauty of “Love, I Will Remember Your Hands” to the swooping “Swing (Your Low Song),” many of these songs have distinct, precise, memorable melodies that don’t blend into each other. There’s a theme throughout (these aren’t unrelated pieces), but I find myself humming many different melodies from this album, not just one or two. This is partially due to Rodgers’ unusually wide vocal range: his voice can reach to dramatic, perfectly-sustained high notes that make the vocals seem almost as crystalline as the glass. You’ll hear his voice once and remember it.
The lyrics that Rodgers pairs with the music are equally as impressive as the music, which is no small feat. Not a single song here traffics in cliches except “Twitter Queen,” which does so to subvert them in uncomfortable, social-commentary-laden ways. Elsewhere, he writes a love song to his lover’s hands, discusses why death may not be the worst possible thing that can happen to you (solo piano elegy “I’m Only Dying”), thinks through mental and emotional suffering (“Ruminating,” “You Will Suffer,”), ponders the problem of evil (“All A Shimmer”), and more. (I’m still not entirely done pondering what the lyrics of “Hurrah Hurrah” mean when paired with the minor/major tension of the instrumental accompaniment, but it is the type of song that will make you think about it.)
The whole album is a powerhouse, but there’s a suite of three songs in the middle that really took my breath away. “Ruminating” is the closest to an indie-pop song that Cindertalk gets on this record, as the glass, acoustic guitar, percussion, and harmonica come together to form a song that flips back and forth from airy openness to concrete, almost-country-esque sections. The melodies and lyrics are straightforward (at least as compared to the rest of the album), but they’re still unique and lovely. This fun tune leads into my favorite song of the record, “You Will Suffer.” The opening lyrics tell you everything you need to know about the content of the song and the complex rhythmic patterns that flow through it: “You / You will suffer / some things alone / but it / it / will show you / who you are / who you are.” The bass guitar doesn’t have too many important roles on this record (and this one may still be a guitar modulated down a couple octaves), but the bass here does some great work, along with the keys and the glass. It’s a whirling, complex song–a great microcosm of the record.
The final of the three tunes in the suite is one of the most complex-sounding on the record (although “Mutter Mutter Mutter” objectively has more going on), due to the almost-mathy patterning of the guitar and percussion rhythms. Rodgers’ vocals shine here, as he uses vocal percussion, soaring wordless arias, and lead vocals here. The song rolls, starts, stops, starts again, adds in instruments, drops out instruments, and generally never lets you walk in a straight line for four and a half minutes. It’s expertly crafted, and, again, a microcosm of the record.
I could keep going, but this is already one of my longest reviews of the year. All A Shimmeris a beautiful album that enthusiastically and successfully pushes the boundaries of what pop music can do. Rodgers shows off an incredibly unique songwriting voice, a deft arranging hand, and expert engineering skills. It was an easy choice to include in my albums of the year. If you’re into adventurous music, there was no more an adventurous album this year than this one. Highly recommended.
My favorite underutilized instrument is the harmonium, a small box that produces a gloriously warm, organ-like sound but without the sharpness. I also have loved the banjo for many years. So when Jordan O’Jordan came my way with Through Tough Thoughts boasting nothing but harmonium, banjo, and vocals, I knew I was in for a treat. Through Tough Thoughts is a warm, friendly, accessible folk album that should be in the catalog of any folk-lover.
O’Jordan’s voice would in a previous era be called “twee”: a soft, high-pitched voice full of childlike wonder that meshes beautifully with the arrangement instead of trampling it. And by arrangement, I do mean that only harmonium and banjo appear on this album: there is nothing else. (“Miller’s Pond” does bring in some background vocals for some diversity, but other than that…) However, they are used in a variety of ways, and the album never get boring: there’s the roadtrip song (“A Lonely Road”), a harmonium ballad (“Patience is Gruesome”), a drone-y chant (“O! Benvolio!”), a quirky 22-second song (“Digital Postcard #5”), a protest song (“Polar Thoughts”), and an introspective banjo-led song (“Advice from Andre”), among others. The ability of O’Jordan to keep an album of limited instrumentation diverse and interesting is a testament to his songwriting prowess: he can write in a lot of different styles, yet still keep the album feeling cohesive.
Through Tough Thoughts is a lovely, unassuming album. The excellent songwriting is compelling without being complicated and beautiful without trying too hard. It feels like a natural outpouring of songwriting from a singer/songwriter with a vast store of skills to draw on. It’s a rewarding, remarkable record. Highly recommended.
For a person who came of age on OK Computer, it’s hard for me not to jump straight to Radiohead’s magnum opus when describing rock led by minor-key distorted guitars that is intended to be taken seriously by thoughtful people. Sunjacket‘s Mantrais that sort of weighty, thoughtful, inventive, unique music. Each song of Mantra packs its own punch, but the main elements of the sound remain the same: distorted guitars, electronic keys/synths, complex percussion, and Carl Hauck and Bryan Kveton’s confident voices.
Opener “Grandstanders” shows off these elements perfectly: lush synths open the track before being set to rhythm with a complex percussion line and heavily manipulated guitar sounds. The resulting landscape bears much in common with The Appleseed Cast’s excellent Peregrine.But instead of just barreling through this mood, the band plays with space and minimalism, progressively dropping everyone out all the way down to single snare hits after the chorus before pounding back in with the full band. It’s a head-turning move, the sort of thing that announces an album. And there is much to announce.
The skittering percussion and staccato synths of “Dissolve It” float a soulful vocal line from Hauck; the fusion is disorienting in the best way. “Not Enough” starts with clanging piano before being sandblasted by a wall of fuzzed-out synth. The song then pulls back into patterned, complex mid-tempo work like “Grandstanders.” “Alligator” feels something like a mix between Bon Iver’s current work, The National, and a heart-rate monitor (this is a compliment). The title track takes all the elements of this paragraph and somehow synthesizes them.
But my award for the most fascinating track goes to “Tongue,” which starts off like a lost MIA track full of digital sounds before being accosted by multitracked trumpet and thunderous bass synth. Right about the time it starts to really feel like a mid-’00s Radiohead track, a vocal line modulated down two or three octaves mourns its way through the landscape. It’s weird and fascinating and the perfect break between the icy, stomping electro of “Habit” and the punchy, catchy rock of “No One’s Around You.”
Mantra is the rare “smart” rock album that isn’t hard to get. It’s weird, it’s quirky, it’s got a unique point of view, but it’s not grueling or punishing. You can listen to it through and hear the guitars and synths and take it at face value. (And its face value is great.) But for those who want to spend more time with their albums, Sunjacket has created an album full of nooks and crannies for listeners to explore. Brilliant stuff here. Highly recommended.
Dietrich Strause‘s How Cruel That Hunger Binds is a sneaky breakup album: it starts off with a folk-pop ode to the narrator’s own human depravity and takes all the way till the eighth track (“Spring Has Sprung”) to get explicit about the fact that getting over someone is hard. Along the way, Strause ponders religion (“Boy Born to Die”), homecoming (“Pennsylvania”), the limits of nostalgia in the face of reality (“Home From the Heartland”), and other introspective topics.
The music is similarly thoughtful: starting from a mature folk standpoint (opener “The Beast That Rolls Within” calls up Josh Ritter, Justin Townes Earle, etc.), Strause adds in all sorts of subtle flourishes to make the tracks pop: horns feature throughout the album, whether blaring (“Lying in Your Arms,” “The World Once Turning”) or warbling sentimentally (“Pennsylvania”), a harmonium provides the backdrop for the mysterious “Around the World,” and Strause incorporates doowop elements throughout (but never in a kitschy way). The end result is a majestic, carefully-wrought album folk-pop album that stands up against multiple listens. Highly recommended.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.