I have a deep respect for people who blaze their own paths. It’s one thing to excel at a skill that falls in a long line of artists, to carry that torch valiantly off into the future. It’s admirable, and you can often find a lot of people who liked the Beatles who will like your Beatles-inspired psych.
On the other hand, there’s outsider music, music by trailblazers for whomever comes across it and connects with it. Outsider music can range from inoffensively strange (like Half-handed Cloud) to totally inscrutable (Jandek); sometimes it’s the lyrics that are arcane, sometimes it’s the arrangement that’s inexplicable. Sometimes it’s both.
JPH’s hell verses taps an outsider vein for the lyrical content of the three-song EP: it’s exclusively the words of Jesus Christ (ok, what’s so weird?) about hell (ok, there we are). Picking the words that Jesus said about hell is ambitious (even in a three-song EP). There’s the question of why, for starters. Why would you want to put those words to song? Are you saying something? Making a point? Is the point that Jesus said only three things about hell, here they are, let’s stop making a big deal out of hell when he said so many other words about so many other things? Or maybe it’s literal: here is the word on what hell is like. Maybe it’s a socio-political commentary: now feels like the right time to remind people what hell is like, either to draw comparisons or contrasts to our contemporary moment. Helpfully, JPH gave me a statement on the EP:
“As for a comment on the album, Jesus’ words, especially in King James English, give hell a tarot-like mystery, one that feels close to my experience with the barren parts of life.”
So there’s at least an element of personal allegory/metaphor here, but I feel more. There’s the element of mystery, tarot-like mystery; mysterious is one thing when describing Jesus, but dropping in the tarot right next to Jesus is bold and fascinating. And the King James, of all translations–the King James has such cultural weight, much more than a contemporary translation like the ESV might. Even in the statement about why such an unusual concept exists, the questions abound.
But writing an EP about hell is not just complicated in the choice of lyrics. How should one put a backdrop to the words of Jesus about hell? Josh Ritter major-key folk tunes maybe aren’t right. The doom metallers and death metallers have the fire-and-brimstone market well-cornered. But then there’s JPH’s statement itself: mystery. And lo, mystery it is. These three tracks are ostensibly acoustic folk songs, but there is no stomping or clapping here. These are intimate, delicate, stark, minor-key songs that draw as much from slowcore like Jason Molina as they do Simon and Garfunkel (and there is some S&G in the vocal performances, which is basically the lot of anyone doing two male vocals in the same song, thanks for playing, everyone).
“Matthew 13:49-50” (more famously known as one of the places where we get the English idiom “weeping and gnashing of teeth”) is just as I described above: a single acoustic guitar and two male vocal lines harmonizing. The two vocal lines are almost both lead lines, as both contribute meaningfully to the sound of the song. Neither are “supporting” each other, per se. The music is not discomforting, but neither is it comforting: it is a piece of art that makes a statement. It is oddly beautiful.
“Luke 16:19-31” is much more experimental: it’s a big stack of a cappella lines repeated ostinato-style for almost two and a half minutes. JPH is a fan of mid-century modern composing styles, and this composition shows that off. To do this entirely with vocals is a unique and interesting turn. The “melody” appears around 1:30, and it’s a wailing, anguished thing that sets raw emotion against the hypnotic obstinate pastiche that the vocal lines have created. This sounds more like Napoleon’s hell in C.S. Lewis’ the Great Divorce instead of the pit that is described in the lyrics; Napoleon endlessly considering how he could have won at Waterloo, pacing, pacing, pacing.
“Mark 9:48-49” is a return to interleaved vocal lines over a moderately minor key acoustic performance. The vocal performances here have an almost medieval quality to the tone and melody; the work here is more overtly ominous than the previous two tracks. This is the “salted with fire” idiom that you may be familiar with; so there’s good reason to be a bit more overtly scary.
Most people read reviews to determine if they should listen to something or not. I think that if the overall concept of hell verses left any doubt, then a short summary like “three songs about hell in an acoustic-folk style with engaging vocal performances” probably would have covered that particular concern. But I’m more interested in this work as a piece of art; not as something to listen to on the commute, but something to commune with. How do you sit with this? What does it say to you? I think it could say something to a lot more people than will sit and listen to it. But for those of you who do seek out adventurous musical experiences and don’t fret about ambiguity, complexity, and unusual approaches, there is a lot here to understand and think about.
For me it raises all sorts of questions about how artists can say what they want to say without saying it outright. Whether this is a commentary on a dark period in JPH’s life, a commentary on our American political situation, or the climate-changing world, or somehow all of that, none of that is explicitly noted. But it comes up in my mind as I listen. The concept, music, and lyrics are highly evocative. I’m particularly interested in music that says things I haven’t heard before and puts sounds in front of me that I’m not used to. Both of these boxes are checked with hell verses, and that makes this a very interesting release. Highly recommended.
JPH’s hell verses drops May 27 at Bandcamp. You can download the release there or pick up one of a cassette run that includes a physical-only bonus track! If you’re looking for even more JPH, he’ll be touring in the fall and releasing music videos here and there until then.
Old habits die hard: I’m honored to premiere an indie-pop track from More than Skies today.
The ever-changing, genre-morphing outfit More than Skies now appears with a ’50s-pop homage, complete with hammering piano, female backup vocals, and thump-da-dump-da-dump bass line. Some homage feels too much like a copy, but the unique (creaky, nasally, enthusiastic, intriguing) vocals of Adam Tomlinson add a nice flair to the track. There’s a bit of country in the guitar twang too, lending a bit of wistfulness to the chipper tune. The black and white images of the performance video add to the throwback vibe too. Overall, a fun song that has more sonic depth than a standard retro-’50s work.
Michael Flynn (the Slow Runner one, not the other one) is allowing us to premiere a new video for “Get Old.” I say allowing because I love this video and feel genuinely honored to be the person who gets to premiere it. The song checks a ton of boxes for me: 1. It’s a piano-heavy ballad (check) 2. It’s got great melodies (check) 3. The lyrics are excellent, from a point of view not often heard (check) 4. It’s about parenthood but not in a pacifiers-and-LEGOs way (check) 5. Flynn’s vocal performance is excellent (check).
And then the video. Oh, the video.
When I showed up at work the first day I saw this, I did not expect to spend seven minutes crying at my desk, but that’s what happened. This video demonstrates everything good and right and lovely about family and parenting. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking all at once–on the one hand, this is a big visual list of happy moments of a family and that is to be celebrated. On the other, there are always hard things that don’t get in the videos (I know that as a parent myself). Even deeper than that, there are things in all our pasts and families that hurt us deeply–seeing a montage like this makes me well up with sadness in remembering those things. But then I also well up with happiness, thinking of the good times.
And then the end of the video transitions to Flynn’s daughter, and I lost it. I’d just gone through a catalog of the good and the bad in my own personal history and then, then I had to think, “Oh no, I have a child that looks that tiny and small and I have part of the responsibility of doing the best I can to make sure that someday there are more good things than bad things when my child thinks back on his family.” And right as I was suffering this deep parental existential fear, the lyrics returned and reminded me that Flynn is celebrating this. This is good. This can be good. This will be good.
So if you want all that to happen to you, you can check this out. In other words, the video is really good. Really, really good.
Throwing down two albums in two years is no small feat. With Where the Wildest Spirits Fly, The Pinkerton Raid manages to drop a new record only 15 months after their previous effort Tolerance Ends, Love Begins. Where Tolerance Ends was a dense, dusky affair that analyzed a divorce in great detail, Wildest is heading in a different direction entirely, both lyrically and sonically.
“Jefferson Davis Highway” is the lead single off Wildest and it turns its focus directly on those who still celebrate the Confederacy. It’s a delicate, touchy subject nationally and in the South. But being from North Carolina (where the topic goes on and on), Jesse James DeConto jumps into the fray with no holds barred–his lyrical efforts leave little room for confusion about what this protest song is protesting.
Amid the lyrics protesting the continued support for Confederate history and ideals, DeConto mentions “We’re singing in God’s own country,” which is an interesting (intended or unintended) connection to U2’s The Joshua Tree. The music here is much more acoustic-oriented than previous work from TPR, but it’s still not quite Woody Guthrie’s folk. The connections are stronger to the expansive, vaulted work that U2 created on their seminal album, and not just because DeConto’s soaring, occasionally-yelping voice is reminiscent of Bono’s. The whole arrangement of the track is one that evokes gravitas without being overly somber. A marching band appears at the end of the track, lending even more grandeur.
It’s a big, bold, gutsy move to introduce an album with these lyrics and this arrangement. It’s a strong offering if you’re into protest music, U2, or folk music (writ large).
Where the Wildest Spirits Fly, which is the band’s fourth full length, will be released on Tuesday, May 1. You can pre-order it at Bandcamp. Catch the band in and around the Carolinas soon:
Saturday, April 28 – Brewgaloo – Raleigh, NC
Thursday, May 3 – North Charleston Arts Festival – North Charleston, SC
Friday, May 4 – Petra’s – Charlotte, NC
Saturday, May 5 – Cat’s Cradle (record release show) – Carrboro, NC
Big Little Lions‘ “Do Better” clip is a beautiful time-lapse of a road trip through the mountains of British Columbia. The easy-going, open-hearted, aspirational bent of the folk-pop tune that accompanies the video matches perfectly with the visuals of open sky, soaring mountains, and endless forests. I love a good video of beautiful scenery, and this one hits the spot.
The song itself is a lovely folk-pop song. Lyrically, it’s a plea for us to “do better”–be more compassionate, less judgmental, and more aware of beauty all around. Sonically, it’s got gently rumbling bass and percussion, cheery handclaps, subtle accordion and piano, and suitably big melodies.
If you’re looking for a pick-me-up on a tough week/month/year/etc., this track has a lot to offer. If you crossed the Lumineers with the Low Anthem, you might end up with something like this tune. Definitely a winner.
“Do Better” comes from Alive and Well, which came out February 23 on Far Flung. You can catch Big Little Lions on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Spotify. They’re going on tour starting tomorrow, so if you’re on the East side of the country you can see them in action very soon:
4/11/2018 – Nashville, TN / Tin Roof Broadway 4/13/2018 – Roswell, GA / The BZC 4/14/2018 – Birmingham, AL / The Shed Series house concert 4/15/2018 – Orlando, FL / house concert 4/18/2018 – Palm Harbor, FL / house concert 4/19/2018 – St. Petersburg, FL / house concert 4/20/2018 – St. Petersburg, FL / Listening Room Festival, Palladium Theatre 4/21/2018 – St. Petersburg, FL / house concert 4/22/2018 – Gulfport, FL / house concert 4/24/2018 – Nashville, TN / The Local 4/25/2018 – Mills River, NC / house concert 4/27/2018 – Springboro, OH / house concert 4/28/2018 – Cincinnati, OH / house concert
Stephen Babcock’s “Atlanta” is for anyone who listens hard to hear if there’s an organ in the background of a song. (You won’t have to scrunch your ears to find the keys in this one: it fades in at the one-minute-mark.) The organ performance, with all its screamin’ soul, is the heart of this folk/Americana tune.
There’s also charming pedal steel, punchy drums, and chipper guitar strum that try to steal my attention–and that bouncy acoustic guitar almost does it. But it’s the organ that really gets me in this one. It’s not even the most prominent element of the song (that would be the pedal steel or the drums) but it gives the song so much flavor.
Babcock’s tenor voice is also great–he’s got an off-the-cuff, easygoing approach to his vocal performance. He seems to be effortlessly gliding through his arrangement, like he’s singing as he walks past a band gettin’ after it on the street corner. (The below album art helps with this imagined scene.) The light swagger of the melody only adds to the freewheeling vibe. This track is a ray of Americana sunshine. If you’re a fan of Josh Ritter’s major key work (“Lark” comes to mind), Langhorne Slim, or old-school Dawes (“When My Time Comes” forever, y’all), you’ll connect with this one immediately.
“Atlanta” comes from Fiction, which drops April 6. Fiction was produced by Cody Rahn and Stephen Babcock at Seaside Lounge Recording Studio in Brooklyn, mixed/recorded by Mor Mezrich, and mastered by Kevin Salem (Rachel Yamagata, Yo La Tengo, Zee Avi, Peter Paul and Mary, Lenka).
You can checkout Babcock on a Sofar Sounds tour if you’re near the East Coast. (I’m sad to miss the Raleigh date–I miss you, North Carolina!)
4/7- Rockwood Music Hall, Stage Two – New York, NY – 9PM
4/12- Sofar Sounds DC – Washington DC – 8PM
4/13- Sofar Sounds Charlotte – Charlotte, NC – 8PM
4/14- Sofar Sounds Raleigh – Raleigh, NC – 8PM
4/15- Sofar Sounds Charleston – Charleston, SC – 8PM
4/20- Sofar Sounds New York – New York, NY – 8PM
Michelle Mandico‘s “Ptarmigan” is a testament to the elegance of simplicity, from the melody to the arrangement to the lyrics. The delicate, spacious folk song features Mandico’s pure and clear voice delivering a compellingly unadorned melody. Mandico doesn’t go for tricks or quirks; instead, she delivers with confidence a vocal performance that perfectly meshes with the guitar line.
That melancholy fingerpicked guitar line comprises a large chunk of the arrangement, as Mandico keeps the instruments to a minimum. An emotional fiddle enters a third of the way through the song, occasional acoustic guitar overdubs appear–and that’s the whole setup for the track. The power of the song comes not from its complexity, but from how well everything comes together into a full work.
The lyrics focus on stripped-down simplicity as well, although that simplicity isn’t always for the best; the simple statement of “and it’s funny how we need no words / when silence carries” is less optimistic when paired with the refrain of “I’m alone again.” But the refrain also includes “I’m a ptarmigan / in my mountain home”–being at home is good, but the home of the ptarmigan is very cold (the ptarmigan is the official bird of Canadian province Nunavut, otherwise known as the farthest northern part of Canada). So there’s complexity in the simplicity, too. Mandico’s tune is impressive, and establishes her as a newcomer to watch.
The video is a collage of clips culled from 1000 hours of tour video. That herculean effort on the part of filmmaker Annie McCain Engman results in an impressionistic piece that evokes both the speed of moving cars and the warm brightness of Bass’ music. There’s a lot crammed in the video, and it works best as the whole it was intended to be (instead of me trying to explain it too much). If you’re thinking, “Ugh, collage, I hate collage, anyone can collage,” know that I’m with you. This one caught my attention anyway due to the deft handling of the work by Engman. Anyone can collage, but pros can collage better.
The tune that the video accompanies is a chipper tune that splits the difference between indie-pop (those handclaps! the keys riff!) and adult alternative (the smooth arrangement! the soaring vocals!) without being self-consciously part of either genre. Fans of old-school Death Cab for Cutie and fans of Sam Smith will each find things to love in this tune, and the marrying of those disparate groups (or are they disparate? I’d like to believe they aren’t) is a great credit to Bass.
The Greatest Fire releases on January 19 via Jungle Strut Music. (Now there’s an evocative label name.)
Hauck’s solo oeuvre is tied to intimate, gentle music, and this one is no disappointment on that front. Over a burbling, swift fingerpicking pattern, Hauck’s distinctive tenor delivers a calm, reassuring vocal line. A stolid, sturdy piano gives some heft to the tune, and high harmony vocals give the tune an airy quality.
It’s an excellent song, evoking a cross between Nick Drake’s effortless weightlessness and José González’s dusky work. Fans of modern folk should be very excited for this song and the subsequent pay-what-you-want EP. Highly recommended.
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.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.