Genres can be combined in any number of ways, as long as it makes sense to the listener. Smoke Season‘s Hot Coals Cold Souls EP mashes folk-style instrumentation and rhythms with the arch, electro-backed rock bombast of Muse. It’s not as weird as it sounds, because the duo knows how to set up the mood to make their tunes build from small beginnings to big conclusions. It’s a rare skill to be able to tip people off to things they haven’t imagined yet, but Smoke Season pulls mood-building tricks from country (the reverb and strum pattern in “Badlands”), R&B (the sultry vocals in “Badlands”), dancy indie (the rhythms of the opening guitar riff in “Simmer Down”), chillwave (the intro to “Opaque”) and more. This whole review feels kind of dumb, kind of like a reach, but I have to explain the sound somehow.
By the time you get to the electronic noise washes at the end of the EP, the connection to folk seems tenuous at best. But throughout the EP, it’s there. There are only subtle differences between a folk band exploding in every direction and a rock band dabbling in folk (and what is a rock band, anyway?), so maybe the distinction is silly. However you feel about the comparison, fans of folk, indie-rock, and alt-rock will enjoy the three songs of Hot Coals Cold Souls. Just go listen to it.
The album art for Conversations by Woman’s Hour is a perfect fit for the album. The smooth, pulsing, post-’80s electro-pop tunes here are pristine, streamlined and unified. They’re not exactly monochromatic, but they do all adhere to a very distinct sonic palette. Nothing is spiky or jagged here: everything is built on spacious, calming, warm vibes. The delicate “Two Sides of You” will especially appeal to fans of James Blake–as Woman’s Hour is (appropriately) fronted by a female singer, this provides an extra interesting hook to the sound. JB’s spaced-out post-dub melancholy/beauty is exactly what Woman’s Hour is offering here. (This is not chillwave; there’s little hazy or washed-out about this.) Conversations is a beautiful, calming, endearing chill-out record.
Emily and the Complexes is a male-fronted alt-rock band that takes its cues from Pedro the Lion: even though there’s significant crunch in the guitars, the emotions invoked are sad and complicated instead of angry. “Yer Boyfriend (Is a Cheapskate)” juxtaposes slow, dejected vocals with a torrent of gritty guitars and cymbal-heavy drums; that sort of quiet/loud is a staple throughout the four songs of Dirty Southern Love.
Tyler Verhagen hasn’t gotten much happier since 2012′s Styrofoam Plate Blues, as the last line of closer “Jersey City Blues” is “Rubbing alcohol or scotch / I don’t care.” He has matured some in his subject matter, as “Joshua” is about a man with a child, a mortgage, and life outlook concerns–there’s a dignity in the depiction of normal life (complete with joys and sorrows). But no matter how tough the subject matter, Verhagen is ace at writing compelling melodic lines for guitar and voice. He’s internalized the lessons of the ’90s and integrated them with the vocal and instrumental emotionality that the ’00s brought us. If you miss the desperate crunch of an alt-rock sadness, check out Emily and the Complexes.
I’ve been posting singles and videos from Colony House since January, because their alt-rock had that anthemic edge which usually portends great things. And while “Keep On Keepin’ On,” “Silhouettes,” and “Waiting for My Time to Come” are great by themselves, they’re amazing when crammed together and packaged with 11 other great tunes on When I Was Younger.
“Moving Forward” is the sort of deep cut that bands realize is amazing late in the album’s cycle, haphazardly throw to radio, and manage to get a career-defining hit from (see “All These Things That I’ve Done” by the Killers). It has a jubilant riff that turns into a revelatory, shiver-inducing “whoa-oh” coda; that arching melody is the sort that Coldplay at its Viva La Vida finest was putting out. It’s the type I wear out the repeat button over.
“Waiting For My Time To Come” is still great in album version–more whoa-ohs, horns, and general good vibes. In other places Colony House echoes an amped-up Black Keys (“2:20″), the Killers, U2, Imagine Dragons, ’80s new-wave (“Roll With the Punches”), and more. Those influences might read like a derivative mess, but they sound like a eye-opening wonder. I haven’t heard anything this immediately engaging and potentially career-launching since I heard .fun’s Some Nights. And we all know how that turned out. If you like fun, cheery alt-rock-pop music, you’ll love Colony House.
Americo‘s style of rock would fit neatly in with Spoon: the rhythms, melodies, and instrumental performances fit together in a very tight, almost clockwork-like way. As a result, their recent release I is a tight, polished EP instead of a frantic, shoot-from-the-hip garage-rock set of tunes. “Stylized” doesn’t mean a lot in its dictionary definition, but the music-world connotations of restless aesthetes crafting and honing sounds seems to (mostly) fit here.
I say “mostly” because the duo also has laidback vibes as one of the core tenets of the sound. Opener “Blastin’ Off” has a stuttering strum and a liberal use of space as its calling cards, not giant guitar antics. (You have to wait for second track “Sled” for those.) “Slingshot” has a ’90s slackerish vibe in the way the chords lazily morph into each other; “Perfect World” relies on rim-clicks and jazzy vibes. This is a band that has both chops and restraint–most bands don’t even have one of those things. (Some of my favorite bands are just fine without either one.) They can even get a little weird and experimental if you’d like (“Prizes”).
Americo’s I shows off a well-developed songwriting sensibility that will appeal to fans of thoughtful rockers. The duo has made it clear that they can rock out and a lot of other things. That versatility could blossom into a particular style down the road, or they could stick with the Swiss Army Knife approach. Either way, I is commendable.
Depending on your interest in the genre, Brother O’ Brother is either carrying on the tradition of or thoroughly indebted to The White Stripes and The Black Keys. The guitar and drums duo rips through heavy blues rock stompers with screaming guitars, howling vocals, and basic drumming. The band’s self-titled record doesn’t let up for the 30+ minute runtime; there are no pop-friendly arena rock tunes or quirky acoustic ditties to break the mood. From the outraged opener “Without Love” to the last high-hat snap of “Mice & Men,” Chris Banta barrels, blasts, struts, strains, and powers his way through through riff-heavy tunes galore.
“Means to Be a Woman” is a highlight of the set. After its bluesy guitar intro reminiscent of the White Stripes, Banta lets his voice take most of the drama. He alternates between snarling speak-singing in the verses and outright howling in the chorus. If you’re into heavy guitars and moral indignation at how the media portrays women, you’ll be all over this tune. Throughout the album, Banta is interested in spiritual and moral themes; it gives another edge to the screaming guitars. Everyone needs some good righteous indignation over the injustices of the world now and then. If that sounds like a good time, Brother O’ Brother can hook you up.
It is hard to put together an album that holds a consistent instrumental palette, melodic thrust, and overall mood without getting repetitive. Palm Ghosts has accomplished this difficult task on their self-titled record. Palm Ghosts lives in a warm, relaxed space with just a touch of ominous haze on the horizon, carving out a space for itself next to artists like Damien Jurado.
Bandleader Joseph Lekkas takes great care in setting moods; the album opens with a tender track that uses the wordless voice as an instrument to convey a peaceful feeling. The follow-up “Seasons” begins with breathy “ahs” as well, carrying the mood over to a perkier version of his acoustic-led sound. Even though there are some drums pushing the tempo here, the dreamy piano line pulls back against the motion. The guitar and vocals sit right in the tension, not celebrating but resolving the dual issues. The result is a track that is both comforting and nimble; beautiful but sturdy. It’s a good analogy for the rest of the album.
The other five tracks on the record are varied without losing the poignant mood developed in the first two tracks. “Oh, Sleepytime!” manages to get squealing trumpets and booming electric guitar into the tune without breaking the mood of the album, which is an impressive feat. “All My Life (I’ve Been Waiting)” is an alt-country tune not unlike The Jayhawks or Mojave 3′s work. “Airplane Jane” combines indie cuteness with alt-country ominousness, which is a odd combination that Lekkas somehow pulls off seamlessly. Lekkas has very clearly written many songs before; even though this is a debut, the deft skill with which Lekkas combines disparate genres into an enjoyable fusion is impressive.
Palm Ghosts is the sort of record that you can enjoy without much thought or delve deeply into. The mood and melodies are surface joys; the intricacies of the arrangements and the subtle ways Lekkas makes various genres work together are pleasures that take a little more work to achieve. Either way you go, it’s a great album. I look forward to hearing more from Palm Ghosts.
I’ve been getting so much good acoustic music lately that I’ve been pulling back from reviewing albums of anything else. (I still cover everything in the MP3 and video drops, don’t worry!) But Inner Outlaw’s I/O is so immediately attention-grabbing that I had to review it.
I/O is rock without garage rock trappings: even at their noisiest, the sounds here are slinky, smooth and polished. Inner Outlaws has the art of cool down pat, whether it’s the dusky back alley of “Easy Life,” the punchy guitar and low-slung rhythm section of opener “Rich City,” or the acoustic-led folk/psych of the twilit “Dead Man’s Game.” The band knows how to make sounds live between vaguely optimistic and outright dark; I/O mines the spaces inbetween, whether they be eerie, dangerous, intriguing or comforting (“Rich City Two”). “Cloak of Lichen” is all of those at once, even. It’s a very cohesive album, which is rare these days. I/O showcases a particular mood from a variety of angles, like a diamond with its many facets.
Inner Outlaws took the best parts of classic rock and updated them with indie-rock cool. If you’re into anything from Fleetwood Mac to The Strokes to Bloc Party to Grizzly Bear, you’ll find things to enjoy in I/O. This album shows off a band with talent and vision; it’s also a ton of fun. Can’t ask for much more.
Justin Klump‘s three-song release The Night Is Young delivers fresh-faced folk-pop with a strong ear for gentle arrangement. Instead of taking the Mumford-esque “shout it out” method, Klump finds kindred spirits in early work by both The New Amsterdams and Joshua Radin: strong melodies that work their way into your heart by charm, not by force.
The title track does eventually get a bass drum thumping as a pulse, but it’s not invasive; it feels like a heartbeat that the accordion, cello and guitar play over. I was reminded also of a less frantic Twin Forks in the interplay between the woah-ohs and the instrumental arrangement. “Slow Life Down” and “Pictures and Stains” both lean on tender, romantic emotions; they’re lovely as a result. Klump knows how to use his voice to best effect, and he frames his vocal melodies beautifully with the trappings you’d expect: banjo, glockenspiel, reverb-heavy piano. It doesn’t have to be groundbreaking to be excellent; Klump is working within a framework and doing a great job of it.
I love it when I find calm, beautiful, well-arranged work. If you’re into the sound of earnest, tender folk-pop or the moods and lyrics of adult alternative pop, you’ll find much to love in Justin Klump’s The Night Is Young.
The two extremes of specialization and increasing generalization are always at work. Muse is all-inclusive of sounds; hypnagogic pop is exclusive of all but a particular subset of sounds. These elements will always exist in the pop music world. Stolen Silver‘s We Have Everything, We Have Nothing trends toward the all-inclusive side of things: although an acoustic guitar anchors almost all their songs, they span the range from modern folk (“A River Only Borrows”) to adult alternative pop (“Prefontaine”) to NeedToBreathe-style Southern-pop-rock (“Blue”) to upbeat indie-folk-pop (“Carbon Copy”). Stolen Silver can do a lot of different things, and it can do many of them well.
If you’re going to go chameleon on your listeners, you need to have a strong vocalist and a versatile band. Stolen Silver has both, as the evocative tenor is comfortable with all sorts of rhythms and melodies. There’s an available falsetto, as well as a strong range before the head voice. The vocals fit neatly into the diverse song structures, because the band gives excellent songs to put vocals on top of. The band is strong in creating moods, which helps when there’s a variety of styles conveyed. I believe the airtight, pop-friendly arrangement of “Prefontaine” as much as the quieter alt-country arrangement of “Come Back to Chicago,” and that’s a testament to the band’s strength of songwriting.
If you’re interested in a diverse set of acoustic-based sounds that trend toward Matt Nathanson/David Gray acoustic pop, you’ll really enjoy Stolen Silver’s We Have Everything, We Have Nothing.
I just finished reading The Night Circus, which is a tale of magic and circus set in Victorian England. The best part of the novel is the perfect mood it captures, with curiosity being the only guide in a world that fluctuates between joy, terror, and confusion. Curtis Eller’s American Circus‘s How to Make It In Hollywood draws off that same time period for musical, lyrical and visual inspiration, resulting in an album that is as mysterious, dirty, magical, scruffy, distinctive, oft foreboding, and occasionally whimsical as the circus itself.
Eller plays the banjo, and so the songs all have a plucky, jaunty feel that only a banjo can give. On top of that base, there’s everything from mournful ballads to proto-rock’n’roll jaunts to old-timey folk tunes to things that sound like they fell right off the back of a circus. The sense of theatricality that is so prevalent in the circus holds together songs as disparate as the New Orleans-esque “Butcherman” and the forlorn “Three More Minutes with Elvis”; the impressive arrangements make both of those tunes sound excellent. The ominous backwater stomp of “The Heart That Forgave Richard Nixon” is wholly different again; it’s just as impressive musically.
Eller isn’t a chameleon so much as he is an expert storyteller, matching moods and lyrics impeccably. If “Busby Berkeley Funeral” needs to sound like a jubilation after a slight into pondering death, the music can fit that. Eller’s strong voice is the guide through this wildly diverse album, the ringmaster in a circus of sounds that are here one minute and gone the next. Whether it’s 1950s pop or 1850s folk lament, Eller knows how to fit it into the amalgam. If you’re interested in upbeat folk like Jonas Friddle’s, or theatrical work like The Decemberists (but way more fun than they ever were), you’ll be thrilled to hear Curtis Eller’s How to Make It In Hollywood.
I’m familiar with Paul J. Phillips‘ folky persona, so the assured rock vibe that bursts out of the five-song release Magic surprised me. From the get-go on “Time, Time,” he hits the listener with fuzzy guitar, thick bass, Motown horns, and tons of strut and swagger. His voice is right at home in the mix, swooning and swaying with the right mix of raucous energy and smoothness. I haven’t seen Get On Up yet, but…
The title track and “Da Blues” are a little more country-fied, calling to mind CCR and what might forever be known as That Song From the Guardians of the Galaxy Trailer (“Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum). Jaunty piano, perky shakers, and well-placed strings give the former a classic, upbeat vibe that makes it a standout. “Fly Boy” moves more toward the Motown vibe, almost getting into soul territory. Phillips wraps things up with the appropriately titled “Till It’s Gone,” which pours the soul vocals into a wurly-heavy pop framework. Magic is a strong five-song outing that shows a fresh side of Phillips. The songs here are fun, but they’re also really tightly constructed. Phillips’ songwriting here is solid, and the vibes are good; I look forward to seeing what comes of this release.
I love punk, artsy electronica, even some post-hardcore now and then. But I’m always going to come back to the pristine simplicity of a solo voice over fingerpicked acoustic guitar. Cancellieri, hot on the heels of his excellent LP Welcome to Mount Pleasant, has given the world a whole album’s worth of gorgeous voice-and-guitar tracks. Winning my heart even more, eight of these fourteen tracks are covers. Closet Songs is wholly wonderful.
Ryan Cancellieri has a lot of things going for him on Closet Songs: he chooses covers excellently, he performs covers memorably, and writes songs of his own that stand up to the company of their peers. Let’s take these things in turn.
Closet Songs is put together like a good mixtape: some songs you absolutely don’t know, some you might know, a few you definitely know, at least one curveball to keep ‘em guessing. I hadn’t heard “I Love You But Goodbye” by Langhorne Slim or “Mama’s Eyes” by Justin Townes Earle, although I respect both of those guys as songwriters. The songs are great, and I thank Cancellieri for letting me know about them. You may have heard “Bella Donna” or “Famous Flower of Manhattan” if you’re more of a Avett Brothers fan than me. You’ve most likely heard “Green Eyes” by Coldplay and “Murder in the City” by the Avetts. Curveball? “Dreams Be Dreams” by Jack Johnson. (Whoa bro.) The best part about all of these is that they’re not just great songs, they’re great songs for Cancellieri.
One of the problems that people who choose covers run into is that they like songs that they can’t possibly perform, vocally or musically. That is not the case here, as Cancellieri adapts the songs to fit his range comfortably. These all sound very easy and fun for him; they’re pleasing to the ear and soul for that element. (Nothing worse to me than someone who sounds like they’re having no fun trying to cover something.) His version of “Mama’s Eyes” definitely retains elements of Earle’s delivery, but it feels real and true in Cancellieri’s voice. That’s the mark of a strong cover. He doesn’t try to copy the original; he tries to be faithful to it while making it his own. It’s a rare skill, and Cancellieri shows he has it.
Another problem of covers is that sometimes a cover is the best thing in a set. (Uh-oh.) This happens because, well, you’re covering an elite talent, and sometimes you aren’t that. However, Cancellieri is an elite talent, and his songs stack well against his covers. “Fortunate Peace” and “Zalo” had me checking to see who wrote them, because they’re just brilliant songs. Cancellieri carries his songwriting voice with the gravitas of someone who knows what they’re doing. This doesn’t mean that he’s brash and bold; these songs are humble, even sad in spots. But Cancellieri sounds fully in control of the guitar, his vocal range, and lyrics on these tunes, which is not something that can be said of many singer/songwriters. You want to test it? You can press play on the first track of the soundcloud and then go to a different tab. Try to guess which are his and which aren’t. You’ll be impressed.
Cancellieri’s Closet Songs is a beautiful, poised, mature offering. It plays like a good mixtape, and it sounds like a great album. This is one of my favorite singer/songwriter releases of the year so far. (With apologies to his own previous full-length!) You very much need to check out Closet Songs if you’re a fan of fingerpicking-heavy singer/songwriters like Justin Townes Earle and The Tallest Man on Earth. (Also Joe Pug, but not because of the fingerpicking.)
Airy, bright, anthemic indie-rock is having a heyday right now: with folk-inspired musicians leaning ever more on the “inspired” and less on the “folk,” tons of bands are embracing big, bright, organic-feeling indie-rock.
Leanids is one of them. The Swedish outfit’s debut album A Wildly mines complex fingerpicking folk territory that fellow countryman The Tallest Man on Earth has done some work in (“Candid & Frank,” “All I Wanted,” the title track), while also nodding toward more power-pop inclinations (“And Then”).
But it’s on tunes like “Trust” that Leanids shine best, mixing complex rhythms, varying tempos, pop melodies, and art-school sentiments into warm, shifting, bursting tracks. The vocalist’s high, occasionally nasal voice is a perfect foil for the sound, as it has a jubilant, celebratory aspect about it. It’s easy to imagine this band as a less-mopey version of Copeland, or a alternate future in which Bright Eyes had turned the treble way up on his guitar. But in this reality, this talented folk-inspired indie-rock act is writing beautiful and interesting tunes. Highly recommended.
I think that Dawes has some pretty outstanding songwriting, even though most of their songs are way depressing. Their country-rock sound is fresh-faced and tight, making it the perfect sort of alt-country to put forward into the indie-rock world. Robert Francis and the Night Tide‘s Heaven has a similar vibe, combining the tightly compacted sound of power-pop, the rhythms of alt-country, and vocal melodies of modern indie rock. Standout “Baby Was the Devil” also includes a passing resemblance to the synth-powered jams of M83, and that’s no coincidence either. Francis is making the most of the sounds he’s hearing and crafting them into his own tunes.
He’s a bit of a chameleon; lead single “Love is a Chemical” is a straightforward country-rocker, while the title track is a soul-inspired crooner. “Pain” is reminiscent of full-band folk like Fleet Foxes, while “Wasted on You” is an acoustic-and-voice track that is a solid-gold lonely troubadour tune reminiscent of I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning-era Bright Eyes. (Standout “I’ve Been Meaning to Call” is also voice-and-guitar; he’s damn good at that, and he should do more of it.) The Josh Ritter-esque rhythms of “Take You to the Water” explode into a synth-pop song (!). But if he circles alt-country, he always comes back to it–nothing ever sounds completely out of that sphere. In the same way that it’s hard to describe Dawes without saying, “It just sounds really good,” it’s hard to describe Francis without it. Heaven is a strong collection of alt-country/folk tunes that never repeat themselves. Sounds pretty great to me.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.