The ukulele had a moment in the late ’00s: between “Hey Soul Sister,” “You and I” by Ingrid Michaelson, and a host of other ukulele-toting bands, things were getting downright cheery all over the place. Vibes have obviously changed in the culture and in musical scenes; ukulele is way less used today. However, the instrument’s ability to create a warm, sunshiny vibe is the same–it’s just waiting there for someone to champion it.
Enter twnsppl. twigs by townsppl is easily one of the most gleeful, charming, carefree albums released in 2017. For a year that’s been full of divorce albums and incisive protest music, twigs offers a heaping helping of respite.
The title track is the opener, and it’s a great tune. Bandleader Alexander Stanton’s tenor voice is smooth and clear, delivered over the aforementioned ukulele and some bouncing bass. The chorus shifts from straight-ahead indie-pop to Graceland-influenced pop with the addition of “whoa-oh-ohs,” African-harmony background vocals, and chanted “heys”. The vibe is spot-on, the recording is perfectly done, and the whole thing comes off like a million bucks. It’s a “sit-up-and-pay-attention” opener for an indie-pop fan.
“so so-so” slows down the tempo and introduces ukulele fingerpicking, which is lovely. The majority of the album lives in this mid-tempo indie-pop realm, exploring many different ways to chill with a ukulele in your arms (or ears). Both “so so-so” and “i’ll be home soon (can it wait till I get there)” have can’t-get-it-out-of-my-head chorus vocal lines, while “cut magazines” and “don’t blink” show off Stanton’s arrangement skills primarily. (Not to malign the great vocal melodies in those tunes.)
“don’t blink” is a highlight: sounding somewhat like a Sufjan Christmas take in both enthusiasm and warmly comforting mood, the tune hums along with an effervescent grin. The delicate closing piano line bowled me over the first time I heard it–it’s a simple thing, but it’s executed perfectly. In other words: #nailedit.
The tunes here are mostly chipper and bright, but one stands out from the pack as being more reserved: “the road to end up” is a somber, serious pop tune reminiscent of Blind Pilot’s vocal melodies and Ivan & Alyosha’s electric guitar use. It’s a strong counterpoint to the rest of the tunes, subverting expectations just enough to add a good break in the sound. The album concludes with the solo performance “sparks,” which is also a little more serious than the rest of the tunes. But even that can’t sustain a straight face for too long before bringing in a lo-fi arrangement to brighten the corners. It’s a great conclusion to a relentlessly appealing album.
Having reviewed music for 14.5 years, I’ve learned to be reserved in my initial response to a record. But some albums cause me to break my rules. I have enjoyed every track on this record unabashedly. It’s a dinger–there’s not a bad track on the whole thing. Each track of twigs is clever, thoughtful, and deeply enjoyable. It will easily land on my top ten albums of the year. If you’re into indie-pop, this is a must-hear. Highly Recommended.
You can check out townsppl at the twigs Album Release Show on Friday, 11/10, at Club Cafe in Pittsburgh. If I were anywhere near there, I’d be headed up. It’s bound to be a blast.
1. “Holding Hands” – The Magic Lantern. Sometimes something comes along that has such a fresh perspective on things that I don’t have clear genre labels for it. Saxophones are lead players here, as well as Jamie Doe’s confident vocals. It’s sort of indie rock, I guess, or maybe indie-pop, or maybe deconstructed-acoustic-Bon Iver-type stuff. The song expands with a drum kit and grumbling bass, tying some of its beautiful meandering to a beat. But it never loses its beautiful quality. Totally wild. Highly recommended.
2. “Baltimore (Sky at Night)” – Kevin Morby. Morby is an even more expansive, good-natured, easygoing Josh Ritter. This song sounds like Morby’s sitting on the back porch and also the Silver Bullet band is somehow with him there too.
3. “Before This There Was Everything” – Big City Cough. Here’s six minutes of rolling, exploratory instrumental acoustic guitar with an occasional supplemental instrument or two. If you need a moment of zen amid the chaos of your day, here’s an option.
4. “In a Galaxy Far Away” – Mixtaped Monk. This ambient track is much less Star Wars and much more Hubble Space Telescope: a swirling aura of pad synths featuring subtle motion and development.
5. “Idea of Order at Kyson Point” – Tom Rogerson with Brian Eno. Keys tumble over keys like a babbling brook or a tiny waterfall, a cascade of pure, lovely sound that soothes and excites.
6. “Summer Is Away” – Easy Wanderlings. This delicate, gently dramatic acoustic folk tune has overtones of Joshua Radin, Billy Joel, Paul Simon and more. It’s a lovely, lilting tune.
7. “Where the Morning Glories Grow” – Dear Nora. It’s a testament to both the original songwriting and the brand-new arrangement that this 100-year-old folk tune sounds fresh, vibrant, and relevant in 2017 at the hands of Dear Nora. The vocal style and the clear respect for the subject material really make the tune what it is.
8. “Third Time” – The Flowerscents. The guitar-forward alt-country of the Old ’97s crossed with the vocals-forward approach of ’90s Brit-pop creates a thoroughly entertaining rock song.
9. “Him” – Silver Liz. The song opens with reverb-laden vocals of indie-pop layered on top of minimalist drumming and sawing synth before expanding into a ghostly-yet-towering indie-rock arrangement. Then it dramatically disappears. We barely knew ye.
10. “Cold Caller” – Julia Jacklin. The best of the ’50s revival filtered through hazy indie vocals and deeply confessional lyrics about the uncertainties of growing older and having different responsibilities. The video is oddly, endearingly intimate.
11. “December” – Yumi Zouma. Feathery, new-wave-inflected indie-rock that seems to glide along effortlessly.
12. “Infinite Space” – Young Mister. Young Mister is leaning into the pejorative term “soft rock” by titling his new EP with it. I must say, it’s not a bad term to describe YM’s music (especially if you stripped all the connotations out and just went with denotations). This particular track is a little more soft than rock, as bandleader Steven Fiore focuses the tune on an acoustic guitar and his lazy, hazy vocal performance. It’s a warm, inviting track.
13. “When January Comes” – Greta Stanley. The uplift that rushes in with the chorus makes this feel like a spring wind breaking across a wintry field. (Although, because Stanley is Australian, this sonic interpretation doesn’t fit with the lyrics–January is summer down under.) It’s an impressive, exciting folk tune that includes a big, post-rock-esque conclusion.
14. “Old Kisses” – Dan Michaelson. A lovely, sweeping, dramatic singer/songwriter tune that uses strings in a way that doesn’t feel maudlin or tired. It’s also really, really sad, but you probably guessed that from the title.
When I get burned out on breakup songs, it’s comforting to turn to music without lyrics. For all I know, the songs of Jason van Wyk‘s Attachment and Opacity spawned from a failed relationship—but there’s only piano and atmospherics to convey that. I can imagine that these are songs about exploring a distant area of space, if I so choose. The subtle emotion infused in the melodies of these piano-centric, minimalist instrumental albums allow for the first interpretation (should you so choose), while the careful use of negative space and the icy sheen provoke the second interpretation. Both albums are comforting, enveloping listening experiences.
Attachment is technically a re-release of a 2016 album, but it’s new enough for me. The album’s compositions focus on minimalist (but not abstract or structural/12-tone) piano work; there are pad synths and other background noises, but van Wyk’s piano playing is central (as in highlight “Before”). In other places the ambient mood shares time with delicate piano patterns (“Stay,” “Found”). Closer “Depart” signals a direction that he would follow on Opacity, as the strings and synths that compose the bulk of the tune create a misty, ethereal landscape for the listener to explore. The piano does (gently) reassert itself before the tune ends, because this is a piano-centric album. The focus on piano allows melodies to be developed, giving many of these songs individual character.
Opacity is less piano-centric; songs named “Shimmer,” “Glow,” and “Weightless” give a sense of the vibe van Wyk is going for on this album. “Shimmer” holds up to its name, as the composition is a gauzy, slow-moving aura. “Glow” is a sad kind of luminescence, more like Gatsby’s light than a Christmas tree; “Beneath” is also a sad, slowly pulsing idea with little piano.
The focus on the rest of the composition outside the piano gives this particular album less forward motion than Attachment, but plays up the coherence of the whole work. As a result, Opacity is more moving to me when I listen to it all the way through; it is a brooding, icy, yet exploratory work. I can easily see it as the soundtrack to a lonely-space-exploration film.
These two albums work together to show off the impressive compositional skills of Jason van Wyk. If you’re interested in contemporary composition (a la Nils Frahm), minimalism, or just “relaxing music,” these two albums will do a lot for you. Highly recommended.
After a summer where I’ve been worn out by heavy breakup albums, it’s really nice to hear an album that is about something completely different. Gifts or Creatures’ Fair Mitten (New Songs of the Historic Great Lakes Basin) is exactly what the parenthetical announces: a bunch of songs about the history of Michigan and points surrounding. It’s a deep dive on a region for people who really hoped that Sufjan was going to do all 50 states, encased in unique indie-pop/indie-rock sounds.
It’s only appropriate to address the lyrics first. If you didn’t grow up in the Old Northwest, you’re going to have dig deep into whatever you remember of your high school American History course: Pontiac’s Rebellion! Fort Dearborn Massacre! Canadian Shield! Fur trapping! Thankfully, GoC gives a lot of context in these tunes without turning this into Schoolhouse Rock. The focus is on the emotions of these places and events (“Grand Rapids Brakeman,” “Pontiac’s Rebellion,” “Conquest of the Old Northwest”), but the duo knows enough to give their listeners a leg up on what’s going on in the otherwise-oddly-specific tunes of this concept album. As I mentioned at the beginning: if you’re looking for something fresh for your ears, this is real fresh.
Also fresh is the indie-pop/indie-rock songwriting. Three instruments are prominent: a specific dreamy keyboard, a lightly distorted electric guitar, and drums. With this unusual palette, the band wrings out all sorts of textures, from the pensive (“Trout of the Pines”) to the poppy (“Fort Dearborn Massacre”) to the icily expansive (“Manitou Passage”).
But it’s in tunes like “Canadian Shield” the true power of their duo comes to light: there, the electric guitar and keyboard are so tightly meshed together that it sounds like one instrument. This is both an impressive sonic trick and a satisfying experience, as the sounds generated are attempting to reach an ideal the likes of which I have never heard or imagined. Again, if you’re looking for something novel, Gifts or Creatures have come up with it.
Fair Mitten is an unusual experience at first, as Gifts or Creatures’ goals are hugely different than that of your run-of-the-mill indie band. In a way, they hearken back to the ideal of indie rock from the ‘80s: “sing your song, man. It doesn’t have to be about the same things as our songs, or sound like our songs; you’re part of us because it doesn’t sound like our stuff.” This isn’t stuff you’ll hear on the radio, and that’s great. It’s fantastic, unique, original work. Highly recommended.
The last time that Nathan Partain checked in, he was purveying crunchy Southern rock and worshipful ballads on Jaywalker. On his new record, Partain has stripped out a large amount of the crunch and embraced delicate acoustic folk almost entirely. The songs still meet the goal of being fit for congregational worship, but A Lovely Wait is a reverent, quietly-intense album much more reminiscent of Rich Mullins’ work or Sufjan’s Seven Swans than a contemporary worship album.
Opener “You Were Not My People” is that rare opener whose instrumentation and lyrics set the stage perfectly for what’s to come in the rest of the album without stealing any of the thunder of the later tracks. The performances are crisp in their precision, but remain delicate: the mellow keys, acoustic guitar, drums, and vocal performances all contribute to this careful tight-rope act. Partain’s voice doesn’t strain or push—instead, he calmly lays out the engaging vocal melody with a female counterpart. The mood this and further pieces create is similar to the quiet awe of Seven Swans, a rare compliment from these parts.
That reverence carries over into the lyrics of “You Were Not My People.” Partain’s words reflect a depth and scope that is also rare in contemporary worship music since the death of Rich Mullins. Instead of focusing on a specific characteristic of God or on worshipers’ response to God, Partain takes listeners on a tour of the whole Bible from God’s perspective: the many ways that people have ignored, turned away from, attacked, and even killed God—and the astoundingly merciful and kind responses that God gives to people in response. The fact that this can happen in under 5 minutes is impressively concise writing. The idea of the song is one that comes from a unique voice in the world of Christian music.
The reverent arrangements and unique lyrical perspective shine throughout the rest of the album. The gentle pitter-patter of “One Thing I Have Asked (Psalm 27)” shows off the instrumental prowess in creating worshipful moods, while “In the Strength You Give” is a spartan tune that accentuates the clear-eyed confessional lyrics. “Deliverance Is a Song of Peace” is a fantastic, expertly-developed folk tune. The catchy “All You Do Is Good” and the folk-rock of “Your Ways” are two tunes that are clearly focused on congregational settings; still, they are both great songs in their own right that don’t fall outside the sonic scope of the album.
While those last two are clearly congregational, it’s a testament to the maturity of Partain’s songwriting that all of these songs work as folk tunes and could clearly work in worship. To then craft and sequence a top-shelf album out of songs that are already serving dual purposes is another challenge that Partain conquers. A Lovely Wait is an impressive acoustic folk album that transcends its place in the Christian music world while still creating music to serve the people of Christ. Highly recommended.
1. “Anywhere, Everywhere” – The Singer and the Songwriter. This is top-shelf folk-pop that draws on all the tropes that make folk-pop so good but puts the band’s own spin on it. (Those vocals! Those stuttering horns!) Highly recommended.
2. “My God Has a Telephone” – The Flying Stars of Brooklyn NY. Impressively enveloping low-key indie-soul, like a slowed-down Alabama Shakes or an acoustified Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats. Fans of Otis Redding and all that went on around him will love this track.
3. “Restless” – Common Jack. The confident folk swagger of Josh Ritter, the punchy melodies of the Lumineers, and a large dose of indie-pop enthusiasm create this fantastically fun song.
4. “Over There” – Dori Freeman. Trad-folk can sound a bit too dedicated to the past, but Freeman manages to evoke old-timey sounds and yet stay modern. Her clear vocals help, as does the immediate, bright recording style. If you like contemporary folk but can’t stand washboard, Freeman is a bridge between the two worlds.
5. “Wailing Wall” – Cameron Blake. A swirling pool of strings forms the backdrop for this emotional, dramatic singer/songwriter tune. Blake’s skills as an arranger and lyricist are on display here, as neither the standard piano or guitar lead the way; instead it’s just his voice, a small choir, and strings that lead the listener through.
6. “Get On” – The Northern Folk. Less satire and more bitter commentary, this folk tune swings punches left and right. Between the acid delivery of the lead vocals, the angry lyrics, a roaring vocalization section, and the unusual addition of saxophone into the horn section, this song has bite to spare. The horns do smooth it out a bit, in a jazzy way, but this one’s about being punchy.
7. “Gaudy Frame” – Monk Parker. More lazy, hazy, easygoing country for people who deeply miss Clem Snide.
8. “I Root (Trio Version)” – Michael Nau. The arrangement of a folk tune filtered through the melodic lines and recording style of a Beatles song results in a dignified, melancholy piece.
9. “Here We Are Again” – Ella Grace. This walking-speed alt-folk tune makes hand percussion sound intimate and personal instead of all of its other connotations. It also includes bird noises, gentle guitar, and Denton’s careful, almost speak-singing vocal performance. This will calm you down if you need it.
10. “Broken Bow, OK” – Aaron Rester. Fun fact: My home state of Oklahoma has a town called Broken Arrow and a town called Broken Bow, and they’re not next to each other. This alt-country/folk tune references the smaller of the two amid gravelly vocals, swooping fiddle, and plunking piano. The compelling tune lives in Americayana, an “alt-country/Americana retelling of the ancient Hindu epic, the Ramayana.” Whoa.
11. “Sorry” – M.R. Bennett. Fragile, delicate, and yet ruggedly determined, this spartan apology (just occasionally plucked guitar notes, Antony and the Johnsons-esque vocals, and yearning strings for the majority) is on a sonic plane all its own.
12. “Motion in Field” – Tom Rogerson with Brian Eno. Rogerson contributes the delicate, exploratory piano elegance; Eno contributes the pulsing, sweeping arpeggiator work. The marriage of the two is luscious. (Fun fact: I’ve only used the word “luscious” two previous times in Independent Clauses’ 14 years.)
1. “Brother” – Strawberry Runners. This is an incredibly tight indie-pop song. It ropes in influences from all over the place to build a tune that is catchy yet still contemplative, expansive yet intimate, and ultimately deeply satisfying. Highly recommended.
2. “Blue Cloud” – Wand. I’ve rarely heard an indie-pop/prog fusion in my life, but there’s a first time for everything. This 8-minute track takes listeners on a journey through an immediately familiar chamber indie-pop soundscape that only gets more alien as the song keeps going and going and going. Engrossing.
3. “Aloof” – BOKITO. There is an unbelievable amount of great moments packed into the 3:31 of this tune. It’s a mystic alt-folk tune, it’s a wild ’80s-influenced dance-rock song, it’s an unclassifiable indie-rock rave-up. Massively impressed.
4. “Clap Your Hands” – Brad Peterson. It’s hard to make handclaps sound sad, so Peterson doesn’t even try: this is an infectious, enthusiastic indie-pop song about clapping your hands. Clap on, friends.
5. “Collide” – Junkyardfieldtrip. A bouncy folk tune tempered by a raspy voice spitting some serious gravitas–at least until the chorus.
6. “I Haven’t Been Taking Care of Myself” – Alex Lahey. It’s hard to write more than one great pop song per album, but it sure sounds like Lahey has multiple (including this one) on her upcoming debut. This is a massive power-pop tune that checks all the boxes for “great tune”: vocal tone, vocal melodies, big guitars, fun auxiliary instruments, and big quiet/loud moments. Love it.
7. “Out Among the Sheltering Pines” – The Helio Sequence. Starts out as an old-timey folk tune with a lovely acoustic arrangement, then bursts open into an indie-rock tune. Fantastic.
8. “I Need Somebody” – Glasspop. This a fun, thoroughly danceable dance-rock tune. No frills, just the goods.
9. “As Long as I Can See” – Broke Royals. Has that easy anthemic quality that Bastille has almost trademarked.
10. “Heat (it covers everything)” – the fin. A head bobbing, gently grooving track that lands somewhere between indie-electro and indie-pop. It does seem to mimic and interpret a hazy, thick heat wave.
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.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.