Jenny and Tyler‘s work has moved from sun-flecked acoustic pop to full-band, emotive indie rock over their discography, and 10,000 Miles (Live in 2015) solidifies their mature approach to songwriting. Where their most recent studio release Of This I’m Sure showed their diversity of songwriting and arranging, this collection shows that they can really knock the songs out of the park live. They also show off how to make a live record that really works.
This album could be attributed to Jenny & Tyler featuring Andrew Picha, because their drummer is a game-changer. Picha’s thunderous percussion performances give “Song for You,” “My Dear One,” “Of This I’m Sure,” and “Faint Not” huge swells of dynamics and extra shots of adrenaline. These songs have percussion in the studio versions, but Picha really makes the songs come to life in this setting. The album isn’t all their loudest songs at maximum volume (although I, and probably Andrew Picha, would be totally okay with that); full band interpretations of the tender “In Everything You Do” and the yearning “Beloved One” are given extra dimensions by thoughtful, interesting percussion work. “Beloved One” is a particularly excellent take, as Picha delivers the churning drumbeat that underpins the legato vocals expertly. (Jenny and Tyler’s vocals are on point, as ever–their voices just sound so good together.)
It should also be noted that Picha’s drumming isn’t notably different than the original version of the track, but the recording of this album is expertly mixed and mastered to show off a different side of the tunes from the studio version. Songs never sound exactly the same as they do in the studio on stage, and the engineering team of Trent Stegink, Shane D. Wilson, and Bob Boyd decided to embrace that instead of trying to replicate the studio sound (which often ends up being clunky). Instead, the engineering here is bright, clear, and drums-forward, which gives the songs pop. Some live albums can sound muddy or distant, and none of those sonic missteps are present here. This recording is high quality.
J&T have an increasingly deep discography to draw from, so they had to make some cuts to get 10,000 Miles down to 16 songs. Thankfully, it seems that my interests and their interests align: excellent opener “Song For You” is the fourth different version of it that you can hear (if you include the 7 Songs version), “See the Conqueror” and “Psalm 46” are treated to beautiful acoustic versions, and even fan favorite (but now out-of-character) “One-eyed Cat” makes an appearance with a charming spoken introduction. There’s something for every J&T fan here, whether Of This I’m Sure was your first introduction or if you have early albums by them that can’t even be purchased online anymore.
This album is a must-have for any fan of J&T, and a great introduction to their work for those uninitiated. Even if you own their previous acoustic live album 7 Songs, 10,000 Miles builds on it in every way by including great arrangements of a full band, funny/serious stage banter, and impeccable song selection. Jenny and Tyler are working at a really high level right now: if you’re into earnest, acoustic-based indie-rock, you should check this record out. You can pre-order the record at iTunes now.
Disclaimer: This is an expanded version of a review that I originally posted to their iTunes pre-order.
Kindie rock is definitely a thing, so it’s not surprising that kindie-folk is a thing. And I do mean kindie-folk, not singer/songwriter (mad props to Tom Chapin though, that was my childhood right there). Hello Friendby The Hollow Trees is a vintage-style string band that also happens to be singing to children. Given the quirkiness of old-timey string bands [and the fact that “I Can’t Dance (I’ve Got Ants in My Pants)” is a real historical songthat was sung to adults], nothing in this album is that out-of-character for this type of sound.
So! Goofy lyrics abound (“What Do You Want on Your Taco?”, “Backward Bill,” “I Like To Draw”), but there’s also some here for the parents (“Poor Papa,” “It Ain’t No Fault of Mine,” “My Metaphor,” “The Whole Thing”) that have more depth when I thought about them. The music rattles along smile-inducingly with jaunty banjo strum, acoustic guitar picking, accordion, occasional kazoo, and fun male/female vocals. Closer “The Harmony Hills” plays up the warbling, breaking vocals to hide that it’s really a beautiful shuffle-snare country ballad; this band has chops, don’t sleep on that. If you’re looking for a really fun, summery folk album, you’ll find an unexpected gem in Hello Friend.
Darling Valley is the new name of Accents, a band that reveled in combining all sorts of genres into gleeful, occasionally rocket-powered folk-rock. Darling Valley changed some members along with their name, and as a result Crooked Orchardsis less folk-rock and more Lumineers-style folk-pop. But the quality of the work is still elite: the album is stuffed full of tunes with vocal melodies that I can’t say no to, elite instrumental performances, and enough lyrical poignancy to knock the socks off a skeptic or two. It’s the sort of album that makes you remember why folk-pop was fun in the first place, while showing that the genre can support more than skin-deep sentiments.
Darling Valley now sports three vocalists who trade off lead: two women and one man. Their vocal tones and melodic lines are each different; a traditional country female croon (“Moonshine”), a warm indie female coo (“‘Til Morning”), and a brash folk-rock male tenor (“Make It Right”) each get their own moment to shine. But this isn’t three soloists hogging the spotlight from each other, as they routinely back each other up with elegantly constructed harmonies. Songs like “Who You Hold On To” and “You’ll Go Far, Kid” see them sharing the microphone, trading off lines and harmonies at whim. It kept me on my toes in the best of ways, wondering who was going to come in next.
The melodies that they deliver are diverse: from the weary tone and formal structure of “Moonshine” to the yearning power-pop melodies of “Graces” to the giddy folk-pop choruses of “Widows and Revolutionaries,” there’s an array of sounds in their upbeat work. Their quieter tunes also show pleasant variation. The love song “Written on My Bones” is as earnest and winsome as you would hope, while “Monsters” is a ’50s soul/Motown ballad filtered through a three-part folk harmony. By the time “Half Your Life”‘s anthemic vocal line “You won’t / always love me / like you do now” comes around to close out the album, it’s easy to be accustomed to how cool it is, until they up the ante in a way that’s so engaging that I’m not going to spoil it for you. Suffice it to say, they know their voices and melodies are awesome, and they use them to their best ends on this song (and on the whole album).
This is not to malign the instrumental work, though! Their standard folk-pop set up (acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass, drums) is augmented by regular appearances of a brass section. Mumford and Sons could have ruined the horn line for them, but Darling Valley’s arrangements are so impeccably done that the horns feel triumphant instead of trite on “Who You Hold On To” and “You’ll Go Far, Kid.” The genre thefts that they so expertly pulled off in their previous incarnation are more subtle this time: “Who You Hold On To” has its giant closing section amped up by a 1-and-3-4 reggaeton drumbeat (for real), “Moonshine” nods more than a little to classic country, and “Monsters” has those Motown vibes. But even when they’re just playing their major-key brand of folk-pop/folk-rock, they show off guitar chops and careful arranging skills. A great example of this is the complex “Graces,” which has a lot more going on than meets the ear at first.
The lyrics also have a lot more happening than you’d expect: Darling Valley is composed of two married couples, so the lyrics skew toward married-people concerns. Oh, there’s still some dating songs on here (“Moonshine,” “‘Til Morning”), but even the dating songs have the weariness of having been around the block a few times. Then you get to the two different apology songs (“Graces,” “Make it Right”), a song favorably comparing a lover to a song on repeat (“Written on My Bones”), and a song about how getting married is sort of terrifying because it involves potentially giving up your dreams (“Monsters,” which has my vote for realest/rawest lyrical confession of 2016 so far), and you’re not in lyrical Kansas anymore.
These are not songs about infatuation; these are serious, grown-up lyrics about serious, grown-up love. You can still read dating into these words: the coda of the album, the repeated line “You won’t / always love me / like you do now,” can mean “You’re going to leave me someday.” However, in the context of the song, it could also mean “your love for me will change and not be the same as it is right now, because we are married and we’re going to be doing this for a long time and I have no idea what this will look like when we’re still doing this in 50 years and that is scary.” Again, real real. If you’d rather have enthusiastic folk-pop about how life is awesome, there’s always “You’ll Go Far, Kid”; but if you’re looking for something else, that’s here too. (“You’ll Go Far, Kid” is fantastic in its own right: vocally and instrumentally, it’s probably my favorite on the record. Its lyrics are hopeful and uplifting, too. But nothing in it is as emotionally lancing as the delivery of “‘Cus all my endings, they came from good intents” on “Make it Right,” or all of “Monsters.”)
I always hesitate to bring too much of myself to reviewing; I’m not a critic looking into music to write something about myself. But sometimes the connection jumps out: the Crooked Orchards of the title might be marriage itself, a joyous thing full of lovely fruit that doesn’t look exactly like I thought it would. In some ways it’s even more amazing than I thought it would be! And in some ways it’s just weird, sort of askew to what I imagined. I wouldn’t ever change it. But I could go back and tell my pre-married self that there’s just some things you can’t know until you’re there. (Also, the album title could just be really pretty words, like “cellar door,” or something else entirely.) Crooked Orchards is a beautiful album: it delves into matters of depth, taking relationships much farther than the standard album. To do so, they deliver incredible melodies and instrumental arrangements. It’s just excellent. Highly recommended.
Jons’ Serfs of Today is low-fi bliss. The Canadian band’s psychedelic rock recorded with iPhones and cassette recorders whisks listeners away to a heavenly place where the electric guitar reigns supreme.
“Sugarfree,” the first track off the album, throws us into a beautiful place of grainy recording quality and smooth-talking electric guitar. In fact, using one or two electric guitars as the main aspect of each of the tracks occurs throughout the album, fitting for psychedelic rock. Yet, “I Haven’t Learned” breaks that rule and uses a hearty acoustic guitar as its primary instrument. Secondary instruments include a drumkit and bass for the most part, but more unique instruments come into play on many tracks, such as the shakers in “Sugarfree” and perhaps wooden castanets in “Serfs of Today.”
The title track does not really sound like any of the other tracks. It jumps around in style throughout the song, with a long stretch of castanet-like instrument playing the song out. “Serfs of Today” works to separate the first half of the album’s sound from the second. A lot of the earlier tracks deliver this hazy lo-fi version of The Beach Boys (“Don’t Complain,” “Last Minute,” and “Orchachief”). The beachy guitar and chill vocals are primary characteristics of these tracks. Most of the later tracks are more saucy psychedelic rock like The Doors (“Other Room,” “Catamaran,” and “Softspot”) where the dream-like quality remains, but the bolder electric guitar and use of the bass stand out more.
“Last Call for Buss” closes the album out perfectly. At an even two minutes, the track is the shortest of them all. It opens with the more playful electric guitar from the first half of the record letting out whimsical rhythms. And just as you find yourself enjoying the track’s larkish nature, it gently fades out.
Serfs of Todayis the perfect combination of sublime and gritty. The soothing vocals, ravishing electric guitar, and grainy musical quality will surely send you off to dreamland.–Krisann Janowitz
LA based three-piece Hand Drawn Maps’ latest EP Kites brings listeners a taste of the beach with a spritz of playful indie-pop. Like a well-garnished appetizer, Kites is a perfect taste of Hand Drawn Maps’ playful indie-pop-rock. Each track has a slightly different flavor, but what ties them together are the rock-solid vocals, poignant lyrics, and consistent instrumentation.
“Answer in Your Eyes” opens the album with a beachy guitar and subtle percussion. After a few measures, lead singer Stewart James enters in. The first thing I thought of when I heard James’ voice was Ben Gibbard from Death Cab for Cutie and The Postal Service. James’ voice is very similar to Gibbard’s in tonal qualities and range. If you are a fan of Death Cab, you will find particular enjoyment in Hand Drawn Maps.
The second track, “Diamond,” is a cutesy love song with lyrics like, “When I’m with you/ you make my heart an ocean.” The beachy electric guitar makes another dreamy appearance anchoring this track. Towards the end of the song, the instrumentation virtually goes away so that the listener focuses on James and his harmonic background vocal accompaniment.
“Follow the Sun” is probably my favorite track off the EP. It’s somber and darker than the other tracks. Hand Drawn Maps does a really great job matching the lyrics with the instrumentation. For this one, the chorus is basically a percussive/electric guitar build that tries three times to meet its climax, but instead keeps fizzling out. With lyrics like, “I know that I’m gone like a star that disappears at the first light of dawn,” you can see how the instrumentation matches the lyrics: they both are unable to reach their mountain-top experiences. It is not until the last attempt that the instruments reach their climax, paired with the repeated lyric “Gonna let the sunlight in,” the most hopeful lyric of the song. Eventually, that also fades away, and the track ends sounding exactly how it began, showing the cyclical nature of hopelessness. Sometimes, even glimmers of hope can’t take the emptiness away.
“Kites” opens with a playful combination of the electric guitar and bass. This song sounds like one big self-pep talk, as seen in the title lyric: “Relax and let the breeze/ take control and carry me/ just like a kite.” The final track, “Cast Away the Night,” begins with the use of chimes, which echoes the more meditative route the track takes. This softer track is a nice way to close an otherwise adventurous EP. —Krisann Janowitz
Moda Spira‘s self-titled debut album is a beautiful, intriguing work that combines pensive indie-pop, thoughtful electro-pop, R&B and more into a distinctive sound. The lyrics are just as impressive, tackling the little-discussed topic of marital commitment with candor, verve, and impact. The result is a deeply moving album that fires on all cylinders.
Moda Spira is, at core, a piano-led indie-pop album with nods to singer/songwriter lyrical sensibilities. Due to the impressive arrangements that Latifah Phillips and her collaborators develop, the final project is much more than that. It’s a credit to those diverse arrangements that this 12-song album is unusually tight for such a long work; the songs do not become monotonous. There’s a five-song suite in the middle of the album that perfectly shows off how that works.
“Shaking the Walls” is the most immediate of the tunes on the record: it’s the most electronic piece, sounding not that far off from School of Seven Bells material. The layering of multiple synths on top of traditional keyboards matches the complexity of the vocal layering that’s going on by the end of the song. At track five, this thoughtful-yet-fun pop song is a big turning point in the flow of the album. It’s followed by “Bet on Me,” which is probably the track most influenced by R&B: check the restrained guitar, heavily reverbed percussion, and the vocal melodies. It’s a big shift musically from the previous track, but the emotions behind Phillips’ vocals in both tunes carry the listener through.
“The Hard Way” is reminiscent of Jenny and Tyler’s cinematic folk/indie-rock sound, delivering some of the most indelible vocal melodies in an album chock full of them. There’s a little bit of electro sneaking in the arrangement, too, but it’s there to round out the sound instead of take it over. “What You Need” combines the straight piano rhythms of indie-rock/indie-pop with R&B vocals, pad synth arrangements, and strings, combining many of her influences in a sound that’s all Moda Spira’s own. It’s a very quiet, chill song, but not as quiet as “Stillness,” an intimate solo piano musing. In the span of five tunes, Phillips goes from her most noisy to her most serene while displaying a huge breadth of songwriting chops. It’s impressive. There are other impressive tunes (the harp-driven “We Hold On” is particularly rad), but I want to leave some surprises for you.
The lyrics are deeply important here as well. Many of the songs here are about how hard being married is, even if (especially if?) you’re committed to keeping it going through the hard times. (Marriage is also portrayed as incredibly beautiful: see “Shaking the Walls.”) As a husband myself, they resonated clearly and deeply with me. It’s also interesting that these topics are framed in vocal lines that draw from the R&B tradition; the phrases “What You Need” and “Bet on Me” sound like they could be any generic R&B come-on, but in Moda Spira’s wedded context, they have a much richer back story. The lyrics reach into a deep well of emotion and are uniquely strong because of it.
Moda Spira is a brilliant collection of inventive, honest, yearning, passionate tunes about staying together that subverts expectations in an astonishing number of ways. Fans of Imogen Heap, The Antlers, and all the aforementioned artists will find much to love. This is a remarkable album. Highly recommended.
Plush, a self-proclaimed SOB-rock band, released their latest EP, Please, last month. With subtle vocals, intimate lyrics, and exploding instrumentation, Please is a very solid EP.
The slow, yet powerful instrumentation is my favorite aspect of this five-track EP. Don’t get me wrong, the vocals are wonderful and unassuming, but it’s the pairing of the vocals with the fantastic instrumentation that really makes this EP shine. “Please Don’t Let Me Go” is a great example of how Plush shows off their instrumentation. The use of a harder electric guitar in contrast with a more beachy guitar and a hefty amount of percussion is perfect. There is even this great build towards the end that slowly winds down–and then the song just ends. Similarly, “Sheer Power” starts off slow and mellow with a subtle electric guitar. About mid-way through, the instrumentation just erupts, pairing well with the increasingly charged lyrics.
The lyrics in Please are emotional and intimate, yet somewhat distant. The lyrics off the EP have this push and pull between “I want you” and “I don’t want you.” Interestingly, most of the songs don’t have distinct choruses. When they do, they are often repeated lines like “But please don’t let me go” from “Please Don’t Let Me Go.” I also love how “Sheer Power” ends on the lyric, “I have the sheer power of/ knowing I still haunt you when I’m gone.” It’s such a punchy way to end a song. By ending the EP in “Fixes” with the lyrics, “There’s no fixes left to try,” they end this collection perfectly.
London four-piece Wolf Girl’s first full-length record We Tried is a spunky pop punk album full of short, punchy songs with spunky instrumentation and quirky lyrics.
“Skinned Teen Zine Machine” is the shortest of all the tracks at 1:17; it comes and goes like a bullet train. Beginning with electric guitar and quickly accompanied by drums, the fast pace of the track enables Wolf Girl to put a lot into the song. The instrumentation feels very Ramones–they even throw in a few “ba ba ba ba dah”’s very reminiscent of “I Wanna Be Sedated”–although Wolf Girl’s version has a slightly different rhythm. Wolf Girl also ditched the idea of a chorus, leaving the track with two jam-packed verses. One of my favorite lines is “Cassette culture taught me I ought-ta/ Press record when I’m bored.” Wolf Girl fits fun and pizazz into such a short song.
The longest track off the album, “Sourpuss” (3:34), has a slightly slower pace, while still maintaining Wolf Girl’s signature spunk. “Sourpuss” begins slowly with the electric guitar and picks up pace once the drums enter in, although not quite as fast as “Skinned Teen Zine Machine.” There is also an impressive electric guitar solo and short instrumental interlude, giving this track fewer words than the shortest track.
The lyrics of this track provide a little snapshot of a few kids at a party, describing them “In a backroom at a party, avoiding all the fun.” Then, at the chorus the singer pleads, “Bury me in awkward poetry.” By the end of the song, the kids are “In a bathroom at a party, the countdown’s just begun / Your head in the bowl and you’re puking loudly,” the “party” here of course being that of New Years. The lyrics of We Tried capture awkward young adulthood at its finest.
We Tried does a great job at encapsulating what punk rock is all about– awkward teenage angst.–Krisann Janowitz
“Nowhere to Be Found,” the first single from Frances Luke Accord‘s most recent album, is about as mature, pristine, and lovely as a folk-pop tune can get; it’s right up there with Josh Ritter and Gregory Alan Isakov. It’s a stunner, then, to find that the rest of Flukeis just as good in a different vein: the airy, major-key mysticism of opener “Who Do You Run From” evokes Shepherd’s Dog and Kiss Each Other Clean-era Iron & Wine. The rest of the album combines the delicate immediacy of the former influences with the expansive arrangements of the latter influence.
“Something Moving” is an appropriate title, as the second song on the record has an arrangement that sounds like running gently through a forest: claps, tambourine, distant auxiliary percussion, woozy strings, and breathy vocals combine to create a warm tune with an unusual groove as its chassis. “Stones I’ve Thrown” and “Egoeye” continue this arrangement style, putting a heavy emphasis on the mood that is created by the many instrumental pieces coming together. “David” starts off as a more direct tune; the band pulls some of the layers back to focus on vocals, lyrics, and saxophone. It doesn’t last long, as Accord expands the simple beginnings into one of the most complex pieces on the record.
Fluke is an engaging, intriguing album that weaves an incredible amount of instruments and sounds together to create a unique mood. The songs can be appreciated on their own, but the album sounds best as a whole, when Frances Luke Accord can tour you through a distinct sonic world. There are many nooks and crannies to explore on Fluke, and you can have a great time finding them all. It’s not a traditional hands-in-the-air summer record, but if you’re in the woods on a lake and take a walk in the next few months, this record would be a great companion.
If you’re a little nervous at this point, don’t be: even though “Love Song for Anita” starts out with gigantic choral harmonies, there’s a section around 5:30 in to the piece where Felix takes it down all the way to a plunking piano and glockenspiel. It sounds like a Lullatone piece, which is remarkably cool on its own and even cooler in contrast to the traditional orchestral structure around it. Felix may not be fronting an indie rock band here, but he can’t resist turning a whole orchestra into an indie rock outfit temporarily.
He does the same thing on “Harmonious Harlot,” where a syncopated piano and vocal line intertwine to create an ominous, wiry vibe that sounds strikingly like something you might expect to come out of a Bloc Party album. It gets even more exciting once the vocals split into multiple lines, punctuated by huge horn blasts and interwoven with harp. All this to say, don’t be afraid of this album because it’s a choral symphony. There’s a lot to be thrilled about if you’re a person whose classical music influences don’t extend farther than (or as far as) Sufjan or Joanna Newsom’s explorations.
The charms continue throughout: the beautiful cello/oboe combo in “Mistress of Mistrust” must be noted, along with the remarkable cello solo that starts out “The Sword and the Throne.” The piano-heavy “Phantasmagoria” is a peaceful respite among the highly dramatic work. The harp, which appears throughout, gets its moment in the memorable interlude “Dreamsicle.” There are some more thoroughly orchestral moments (the stomping “Dungeon of Versailles” sounds fully like what you might imagine from a giant orchestra), but in general, this is an orchestra that sounds like it was written by someone who’s up with the current trends.
Neon Heavenis not your usual listening, almost certainly. But in its 40 minutes, Neon Heaven holds many distinct charms, beautiful moments, and memorable sections. If you’re an adventurous listener, you should definitely check out Neon Heaven whenever you can. If you’re in Austin, there will be a listening party for the record at the Museum of Human Achievement on Saturday at 8 p.m., and I encourage you to go.
Printers’s Son by Kalispell adheres to the Gregory Alan Isakov school of folk: direct, serious, modern. Kalispell’s hook is the immediate production; where Isakov likes ghostly reverb and delay, Shane Leonard presents his instruments and voice mostly unadorned.
This choice results in crisp, tight, uncluttered, and clear arrangements throughout. But the album isn’t stark: Leonard cares deeply about arrangements, including wind instruments, strings, and a full band to create wide-open panoramas of sound. (Song titles “In Chicago” and “Gary, IN” give clues to the landscapes he’s sonically describing.) These songs aren’t particularly designed to be catchy, but there are melodic thrills to be had throughout: “Beautiful Doll” features a cascading banjo melody, while “Hand” opens with a memorable acoustic guitar line and keening strings. The title track has a song structure and emotional vibe that are more attuned to singing along.
Still, the joy of this record is not audience participation, but marveling at the serene, intricate work that Leonard has put together. It’s more along the lines of S. Carey than Bon Iver in that regard, although fans of either musician will find much to love in Printer’s Son. The album drops on June 3; you can pre-order it now.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.