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.
Two Sets of Eyes‘ self-titled debut EP is a mind-bending release that manages to seamlessly mesh moments of wildly inventive, almost avant-garde weirdness into songs that were already clever, intricate indie-rock pieces. From the bold-move instrumental opener to the ten-minute closer extravaganza, Two Sets of Eyes doesn’t cover the same patch of earth twice.
Opener “Sunshine, You’re Standing in My Sunlight” opens with a fuzzed-out arpeggiator and a hip-hop kit beat before morphing into a vaguely dystopian mood with the addition of melodies from what sounds like a heavily manipulated guitar or keyboard. The sci-fi intensity ratchets up with the addition of various synth layers, creating something that sounds like Muse on its best day or instrumental hip-hoppers Jaw Gems scoring a Mad Max film. The track consistently throws curveballs at the listener, providing an exciting standalone experience and a clue as to the mayhem that is to come.
Lead single “For the Last Time” zips in a different direction, fusing early ’00s emo (a la Promise Ring), smooth jazz saxophone, and quirky indie-pop vocals with some beachy vibes and sleigh bells for spice. Yet (as with the opening track) the song sounds internally consistent–at no point does a switch in sonics lose me as a listener. Those with wide sonic interests will love the diversity between tracks, too.
And that diversity gets even wider with “Cash Me Out (ft. Bardo)” — even though this one’s the most straightforward of the tracks (ha!), it’s a woozy, complex R&B backdrop with Bardo’s smooth, even flow over it. The trio can’t resist going from moderately chill to intense even within the confines of an R&B banger, though: the culmination of the track is a spiraling, thrashy punk-jazz blast.
“No Simple Words” continues the intensity by starting off with a post-punk/post-hardcore guitar line, but throws some cooing melismas on top of it to make it weird. The track bends expectations (even those expectations of chaos set up earlier in the EP) with glee. But all of this is just prologue to the monster ten-minute closer “Waiting/Reacting,” which is one of those songs that makes me think, “How do they remember all of these parts in order?” The tune combines many of the aforementioned references in the EP (post-hardcore, emo, indie-pop vocals, dystopian space rock, synth mania, as well as impressive bass work) into a marathon of creativity.
Two Sets of Eyes’ debut EP has enough inventive ideas to fill an album two or three times its length. The fact that they wind them tightly into five songs is a win for the listener, who is treated to a ton of things blasting out of the speakers at breakneck pace. Adventurous listeners should be thrilled to hear such a fascinating new entry into the indie rock world. Highly recommended.
I am quite picky when it comes to music videos. The song and video have to go together–a good video can’t survive a boring song and vice versa. On top of that, I vastly prefer narrative-driven videos to performance videos. After 14.5 years of reviewing, I’ve seen hundreds (if not thousands) of performance videos, and they’re pretty much all the same. Given those facts, my recommendation of a performance video should be recognized as extremely high praise.
The Contenders‘ “Not Enough” performance video is that needle in a haystack. The song itself is folk-rock at its very finest. The guitar-and-drums duo knows how to make the most of their skills. Jay Nash’s songwriting is immediately engrossing, and his lead vocal performance is brash yet tempered with pathos. The chemistry between the two is palpable: the instrumental mesh is tight between Josh Day’s kit and the guitar, and the close-harmony vocals from both are impressive.
The most impressive note of the performance is what Day mentions at the end: Nash apparently improvised part of the song, and Day followed him hand-in-glove with harmonies. Now that’s impressive. (The ridiculous nature of their banter makes me think that their live show would be a blast too.) The duo clearly has the chemistry, charm, and chops of a hardworking, road-tested outfit.
The video itself is, yes, a performance video. But the space they’re in is more interesting than average: the wood-paneled walls give “Precision Valley” a rustic-modern feel that fits with the tune. Yeah, I know it’s not a ton, but when we’re talking about performance videos, any element that breaks the stereotypical mold of bands-on-stage is appreciated.
The downtempo indie-pop/folk of Little Shrine‘s “Stone” sounds way too polished and mature to come out of a debut. But what seems incredible is true, much to the listener’s benefit. The tune opens with a stark, staccato acoustic guitar that hooked my attention immediately; instead of filling the song with strums, the band lets space ring out. The feel is almost of a mournful stutter or hesitance.
That guitar announces the tune’s solemnity right from the get-go, creating a fitting mood for the lyrics of loss and redemption to further accentuate. When the song expands to include a second guitar, a wavering violin picks up the staccato motif to tie the song together. It’s not just a sign of impressive arrangement, it’s a clear marker of strong chemistry between the players.
It’s not all instrumental synchrony, though. Songwriter/vocalist Jade Shipman’s confident alto resonates with calm-yet-emotional melodic lines. Her voice, the lyrics, and the tight instrumental arrangement result in a song that sounds like a lot less work than it certainly was: it rolls out of the speakers with ease, despite the heavy subject matter. Fans of Laura Marling, Laura Gibson, and Cat Power will find much to love in this track.
“Stone” comes from the band’s Wilderness mini-LP, whichdrops 10/20/2017. Check out the latest news on their Facebook.
The Morning Yells are a band that can appropriate and reinvent the past without becoming constrained by it. “Take Me Somewhere” combines all sorts of ’70s influences with ease: Fleetwood Mac’s mystic dreaminess, The Eagles’ effortless swagger (totally a compliment!), and the laidback California vibes of Jackson Browne.
Yet these are only touchstones–just threads pulled out of the larger tapestry. The six-and-a-half minute song feels totally cohesive and much shorter than its runtime because of the chemistry between the instrumentalists, the confident vocal performances, and the solid production job that puts just the right amount of space around all the parts. It’s a tune that easily stands up to multiple listens. They will take you somewhere, indeed.
I live in the Phoenix area now, which means that my predisposition towards seasonally-themed music is suffering from a seemingly perpetual summer. It’s almost October, dang it, and it should be fall. Joel Madison Blount‘s “Inner Monologue” is a tune helping me get into that autumnal spirit.
“Inner Monologue” is a dusky, twilit tune with a bit of a split personality. The verses are downcast, summoning feelings of urban nightly gloom. (The lyrics about middle-of-the-night doubts help this mood along.) The chorus, though, is all soaring lines, yearning guitars, and hopeful lyrics: “release your burdens / let it go / just let it go.” This section has just as much ’90s Oasis-esque Brit-pop in it as it does contemporary acoustic work.
Ultimately, the back-and-forth mirrors some of the alternating cold and warmth of fall. Fans of Gregory Alan Isakov will immediately gravitate toward the tension-and-release nature of the work and the cloudy-yet-tight arrangements.
“Inner Monologue” comes from Our New Moon, which drops September 29. You can pre-order it here.
The start-stop arrangement of Harp Samuels‘ “Wanting” sounds like the distant fragility of Jeff Buckley’s guitar work run through a latter-day Bon Iver-esque mood filter. Soul-inflected vocals, a la Moses Sumney, complete the arrangement. The tune itself takes its time to get where it’s going–at over six minutes, the song gently unspools at its own pace. The results are a languid, free-flowing tune that would fit nicely as the satisfying conclusion of a soulful indie playlist.
“Wanting” comes from Samuels’ self-released album of the same name, which drops September 8.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.