Jonny Rodgers (Cindertalk) is starting up a new record label called Off Atlas, and artists who are getting involved are catching my ear. Beyond Cindertalk’s ever-interesting work, The Soldier Story and now Hybird have joined up.
Hybird’s “Sun and Air” is a delicate-yet-weighty indie-pop track, with songwriter Ravi Krishnaswami balancing left-hand piano chords against glockenspiel lead melodies and wavering, trebly electric guitar lines.
The song builds from humble beginnings to a big conclusion, but the tune never feels expansive; even at the apex of the final crescendo, the song sounds more claustrophobic than grand. Krishnaswami’s twee-sounding voice contributes to the feeling of nearness, as its hushed, twee tone makes the vocal melodies drip with vulnerability.
This pervasive sense of intimate closeness, even a little too much closeness, mirrors the lyrics. Written while Krishnaswami’s wife was in bad condition at a hospital, the words try to grapple with the many emotions and fears of having a loved one in an uncertain state. The titular elements are given to the sick loved one “to stay with you / when I’m not there,” a heartbreaking situation to be in. (But yet, the hope of the sun and air!) These uncertainties and tensions match the song’s sonic quality, which shines in the light of hope amid the darkness of a minor key arrangement. Overall, the tune shows a careful attention to the contours of how an arrangement and lyrics fit together, creating an evocative, memorable tune. Fans of Sufjan Stevens’ Michigan-era work or William Fitzsimmons’ delicate-yet-devastating work will find much to love here.
I didn’t listen too much to The Damnwells, but those who did are well acquainted with frontman Alex Dezen. He’s recently gone solo, giving him freedom to experiment with sounds. The whole album is intriguing, with Dezen exploring swampy rock’n’roll, synth-pop, folk-pop, indie-pop, and more. All of it is built around his lithe, assured vocal delivery; no matter what the vehicle, Dezen’s vocals and melodies shine.
That’s true of “Everything’s Great (Everything’s Terrible),” where Dezen pulls off Graceland-style African-influenced pop with ease. Fans of Paul Simon’s masterpiece will find themselves headbobbing along to Dezen’s long vocal lines, extended verse lengths, and bubbly arrangements. The melodies are chipper, sunny, and smile-inducing, which (purposefully) contrasts with the less-happy lyrics. (Much, as you may remember, Paul Simon did in Graceland.)
This isn’t a rip-off, though–Dezen’s melodic sensibility pushes through the instruments and the vocals, keeping up the unique flavor that sets it apart from other artists and meshes it with the rest of the album. As with Graceland, the instrumental musicianship should not be lost amid the joie de vivre of the melodies and the complexity of the lyrics against that backdrop. The arrangement sells this song with consummate, professional ease. Dezen’s instrumental prowess shows here, as he plays almost all the parts on this track. Overall, the tune is a blast of pop that you just can’t beat on a warm day.
Ah, 2017! I’m pleased to be starting the new year with a fantastic song to premiere.
MAITA is a Portland-based songwriter who has turned out an exciting chamber-folk tune in “Kinder than Most.” MAITA’s lilting alto leads the way: her range and notes are carefully controlled, but the engaging, intriguing swoops and leaps of her vocal melodies give the song a bit of a woozy cast. The arrangement is almost the definition of chamber-folk, as pizzicato strings, precise-yet-round bass, gentle percussion, and subtle acoustic guitar mesh together into an arrangement that feels by turns spartan and lush.
It would be a crime not to mention the excellent engineering here, which takes all these beautiful parts and makes them sound as if they’re happening a foot away from me. In that way, it’s a fully realized song: the vocals, arrangement, and engineering all come together perfectly to create a top-shelf tune. Fans of Dana Sipos’ stark folk will find much to love here, while fans of My Brightest Diamond will hear echoes that draw them in (albeit folky echoes).
“Kinder than Most” comes from Maita’s debut EP Waterbearer, which comes out 1/27. You can pre-order it now. I’m very much looking forward to reviewing the full release shortly.
The last time IC checked in with Jake McKelvie, he was blasting off at rocket speed over folk-punk strumming. If the title track/first single of McKelvie’s new EP The Rhinestone Busboy is any indication, this release is going to be a lot different.
“Rhinestone Busboy” is a pristine, walking-speed country shuffle with indie arranging tendencies, much like Clem Snide’s work. Over a brushed snare shuffle and unhurried acoustic strum, warm keys and electric guitar with vintage-style reverb settings ring out in a precise yet charming method. The engineering is bright and sharp, which results in a very effective fusion of the traditional with the modern.
The delicate, carefully constructed arrangement is matched by McKelvie’s languid, easygoing vocal delivery–he’s perfectly at ease here, allowing his voice to have all sorts of honest, subtle emotional inflections. The lyrics tell a story of a romantic reconnection that actually turned into ships passing in the night–a tale with more twists and turns than I’d expect from the musical style. But even in simplicity, McKelvie can draw out complexity. It’s a fascinating track that calls for repeated listens and has me quite excited for the full EP, which drops December 20.
Kyle Cox‘s “Trusty Ol’ Pair of Boots” is an old-school train-whistle country song, complete with traditional bass work (love me some standup here), vocal harmonies galore, and even a guitar solo. The vocal melodies are familiar and warm, but not derivative; the love song lyrics are simple, earnest, and a perfect fit for the song. It’s basically everything good about country music.
So to make that excellent song even better, Cox paired it with a charmingly simple video. Instead of going to high-drama lengths (which wouldn’t fit the song at all), Cox recruited his wife to play HORSE on the basketball court outside their house. The very pedestrian yet fun and funny activity matches the candor of the tune, which is a pledge of steadfast marital allegiance. Some people would chafe at hearing their relationship called a trusty ol’ pair of boots, but those who wouldn’t are going to understand both the song and the video. I love it all.
Also, I just really like basketball.
Kyle Cox’s Trio and Friends came out in June; you can pick it up at iTunes. He’s got a bunch of shows through the South coming up, so you should check him out on those. Maybe you’ll get to play some hoops with him.
Quinn Erwin first came to my attention as a big part of Afterlife Parade, a top-shelf outfit equally comfortable making can’t-ignore-it pop-rock and textured post-rock. Erwin’s Soul EP builds on the pop-rock side of Afterlife Parade, getting crunchier and catchier simultaneously.
The titular track of Soul kicks off the four-song effort with hammering piano, crunchy guitar, handclaps, and Erwin wordlessly throwing his voice around in some great melodies. There’s a pop-rock chassis to the tune, but from the wheels up it’s all muscly soul attitude and yearning blues vocals. There’s a bit of dance-rock thrown in for spice at the end, but this is primarily an earthy, Southern (but not Southern rock) jam. “Heritage” builds on that earthy pop-rock blend, fusing a stomping backbeat to a scuzzed-out guitar line with some zinging synth on top of it. Erwin’s repeated plea (“Don’t let this be my heritage”) and anguished “la”s give the tune some extra punch (as if it needed any). Both of these tunes have a crunch that wasn’t often there in Afterlife Parade, but don’t sacrifice any of the melodic prowess. If anything, these are even catchier tunes.
“Reality” and “Soul (acoustic)” pull back from the unique vibe of the first two tracks and push the sound in different ways. The straightforward pop-rock of “Reality” does have thrumming bass and insistent snare, but the vibe here is less Southern attitude and more U2-style pop expansion. (You can hear Bono in the wordless, nearly a capella bridge, for sure.)
The acoustic version of “Soul” pulls the excellent arrangements out of the mix and shows that with or without a backing band, “Soul” is a torrential song. Just because there’s only an acoustic guitar accompanying Erwin doesn’t mean he sacrifices any of the attitude or intensity of the tune. The song reveals just how impressive a vocalist Erwin is by putting the focus squarely on his vocal performance.
Soul is one in a series of EPs Erwin is releasing, so we’re going to be treated to more work from him in the near future. And the work is a treat; Erwin’s clear vision for fusing his pop-rock background with other sounds creates distinctive, exciting work. Soul establishes (for some) and continues (for others) the need to carefully follow everything that Erwin is up to.
Soul drops tomorrow, April 29. If you’re in the South, you’ll have some chances to catch him soon on the #OYOUGOTSOUL Spring Tour:
04.29: Biloxi, MS
04.30: Mobile, AL
05.06: Baton Rouge, LA
06.10: Birmingham, AL
The Bitter Poet’s “Guy’s Gotta Breathe” is a manic, almost unhinged anti-folk stream of consciousness anchored by literate, specific lyrics and Kevin Draine’s engaging vocal performance.
Over a charging electric guitar line, Draine laments in rapid-fire style relationships current and past, potential apartment hauntings, old laundry, Simon & Schuster, the way coffee tastes three hours after it’s made, never being able to go back to your favorite restaurant, and various other slights (great and small). It is a whirlwind 2:46. His voice moves from a grumble to a howl throughout the song, keeping the listener close with his tenor’s ratcheting tension. The tension finally explodes at the end of the tune, providing a fitting end to the wild ride.
If you’re into The Mountain Goats’ lyrics (or their unhinged moments, like “Psalm 40:2”), you may find The Bitter Poet to be incredibly appealing. In the way of all unique things, the song does takes a moment to adjust to–Draine does not mind dropping you in en media res to his take on things. After you settle in, it’s really impressive and calls for multiple listens.
“Guy’s Gotta Breathe” comes from the upcoming Trail of Glitter, which drops May 6. You can check out tour dates and more info on where to buy the record at The Bitter Poet’s website. If you’re in NYC, you can also check out NYSolo6, the monthly singer/songwriter showcase that he runs.
It’s difficult to tell just from listening to “Closet” that John Vournakis‘ The Devil You Know is a debut solo album and a departure from his other bands (New Junk City, Gold-Bears). Even though he’s recorded EPs and singles over the years, “Closet” shows off unusual skills and confidence in delivering on the conventions of a genre without feeling the least bit trite.
Vournakis’ clear, passionate voice is perfectly at home in the acoustic folk/country environment, and the loping miss-you break-up tune displays a remarkable songwriting confidence.The treatment of the electric guitar and drums are particularly striking, as Vournakis creates a great amount of ethos and just the right amount of space for the vocals to take center stage without dominating the track. Those vocal melodies soar and simmer appropriately, evoking that feeling we all know of looking back at the one that got away. Vournakis understands the way this genre works, and that makes “Closet” sound like the confident, assured work of a much more mature singer/songwriter. Check it out below.
It’s somewhat astonishing that it’s almost time for Christmas music already. I almost threw a moratorium at this one (no Christmas music until at least November!), but then I listened to it twelve times in one day. I figured somewhere around the 7th or 8th listen that I was probably socially obligated to tell people about this tune that I was getting so much enjoyment from.
Hailing from my old stomping grounds of Opelika, Alabama, Martha’s Trouble sets off more nostalgia for me than that which strictly comes from their poignant rewrite of “White Christmas.” The easygoing folk arrangement has warm edges that seem to evoke the warmth and glow of a candle sitting in a window at Yuletide. The gentle electric guitar reverbing off the full acoustic strum and delicate banjo creates the comforting, enveloping atmosphere that you want to imagine Christmas will be.
The tune itself is quite different than the original: the new melody has a great deal less theatricality than the traditional. That overt drama is replaced by a subtle intimacy, an easygoing comfort that really sells the tune. The arrangement backs it up: the song begins, lives, and ends at the same speed and volume. It feels like a slice of life, as opposed to a over-produced Christmas tune. What else can you ask for in a Christmas song?
Bear and Moose‘s “Chicagovenient Store” is indie-rock in one of the most old-school ways to envision it. Chronologically post-punk rock’n’roll in the way that the Minutemen were, Bear and Moose feels like it is carrying the torch on the Minutemen’s natural progression from punk’s loud/fast/brash via added lyrical, technical performance, and sonic concerns. Like the Minutemen, Bear and Moose’s lyrics concern political issues; unlike their forbears (who were concerned with America’s relationship to globalization and, in particular, Central American politics), the subject here is American suburban materialism, despondency, and political malaise. We can use more critique on those fronts, for sure.
The wryly amused, satiric vocal delivery contrasts with the perky, skittering music that the duo constructs. The tune opens with a hectic bass line that’s doubled by the guitars–past the intro, the song sways and jolts and tilts as the varied guitar strumming patterns zoom back and forth. The frantic guitar and bass are locked down by a drumbeat that keeps everything in line (and the aforementioned vocalist, who seems content to toss off pronunciations while totally unaffected by all the complexity going on around him). The song threatens to come apart at the seams with all the various melodic lines zinging here and there, but those two elements hold it all together to make a really exciting song.
It’s a bit of controlled chaos, which is a pretty good definition of what I’m looking for in rock music. If I really have to pin a label on it, the guitar tone and the engineering job tie it tenuously to surf-rock and/or garage rock. But I’d rather just let it stand on its own, under that big tent banner of indie-rock.