With an honours degree in classical guitar, it is not difficult to hear the talent of Sydney, Australia’s Cameron James Henderson. “This definitely influences my composition,” he says. Influenced by the obvious–Bob Dylan and Tom Waits–it is refreshing to hear echoes of Jim Campilongo, Blake Mills, Ry Cooder, and Marc Ribot coming from his guitar. There is also a vibe that comes from down under. “Definitely John Butler and Ash Grunwald were guys I looked up to heaps during high school. Saw both of them a bunch of times etc and played their songs,” says Henderson.
The twelve-song Storm Rollin’ Inis a treat for blues-folk fans worldwide. The laid back shuffle of opener “Storm Blues” feels like the salt air and beaches of Sydney. Simple, elegant storytelling follows with “Across the Water,” whose guitar work shines. “Lifeboat” features satisfying slide guitar work, while classic guitar riffs blend Stevie Ray Vaughn and John Butler Trio beautifully. The metaphor-filled “Refugee” is a bit of brilliance. Channeling Bob Dylan in vocal style, the song is a powerful testament to humanity’s weaknesses. The mix is stellar, allowing the song to breathe out the message freely.
“No One’s Here/Cares” has a Ray Wylie Hubbard vibe, throwing down a groove that rocks. Sprinkled with harmonica and songwriting nimbly mirroring songwriter Chris Gillespie (AU), this song is an incredibly fun romp. Sequencing on this album works together to create an experience; without “Stand Amazed” (the intro), “Floating” would lose the power of imagery. Stark and haunting acoustic guitarwork slides into the song gracefully. Vocals are layered in with classical guitar composition–simply beautiful musically and lyrically. “Wisest Man” is a shout in the dark, back in the folk singer-songwriter style with an essence of The Milk Carton Kids.
Things shift adeptly to “Old Man Stomp,” then abruptly jump to “Shelter,” as if one could not be there without the other. B.B. King makes his voice heard, here. There is a familiarity with the easy rolling songwriting, hearkening back to the beginning tracks of Storm Rollin’ In. “She’s Not There” brings in what sounds to be the ocean, a continuous pull of life that gives a fluid foundation to the pain of love. “Don’t Go Drifting” closes out the album in style. Soaring, J.J. Cale-style electric guitar and vocal phrasing give an extra punch to the message of the song. This follow-up to Cameron James Henderson’s 2014 debut album is a step up in songwriting dexterity and composition, showing a new depth in vocal delivery. Get yours at www.cameronjameshenderson.com/. —Lisa Whealy
Shiloh Hill creates a vibe with their latest release Wildflower that feels like running barefoot through a summer rainstorm, fresh and alive. The eleven-song album combines eclectic instrumentation that embarks on a blend of New Orleans Bourbon Street combined with traditional folk. For the rest of the world that is not in the Greensboro, North Carolina, area where this band blossomed, Shiloh Hillis a treasure that has yet to be unearthed since the album dropped in August.
Supported by regional touring, the band’s current lineup consists of Nick Wes (lead vocals, acoustic guitar), Mamie Wilson (lead vocals, mandolin, glockenspiel), Julian Jackson (background vocals, banjo, electric guitar, dobro), Zeke Churchill (background vocals, drums), and Michael Kuehn (bass guitar, piano, organ) with the regulars joined in studio with friends Benjamin Matlack (trumpet & flugelhorn) and Evan Ringel (fiddle).
“The Artist” begins with a simple pizzicato of strings, building a cinematic vibe with vocals in layers from Wes and Wilson. Drifting like a summer breeze with banjo and trumpet accompaniment, the parade that is “Better Fool” begins by clearly marching to a different drum. Admittedly love’s fool, lyrically closing out with a restrained chorus and banjo is brilliant. Creating separation within a song is a challenge that is achieved here with instrumentation and tempo.
Moving it down to to an easy roll, “Mama’s Boy” enhances that Americana quality this album embraces. Juxtaposed with lyrics that bleed anguish, the arrangement is downtempo in a sweetly triumphant way. With horns leading the parade, “Wildflower” is the closest to a pop song on the album. The vocals really shine here, possibly because they are the storytellers, metaphor spreading the seed on the wind. “Seasons” rests roughly halfway along the journey; it’s a traveling song with the anticipation of new things ahead. Mandolin is featured up front in the mix here, and it is a beautiful touch. “Dust” feels like something that bands like The Avett Brothers may have inspired, with banjo and guitar along with the harmonies of Wes and Wilson. Taking the genre in a new direction, horns are added in a subtle way here. The tune pulls out into a solo piano accompanied by a fine bit of banjo work, coming together in a haunted musicality.
“Box of Pine” kicks the album into high gear with an opening that pulls fiddle and banjo to the front of the mix to highlight the roots of North Carolina musical tradition. Relying heavily on the familiar, the song is sweet with dobro and a toe-tapping infectiousness. “Stale” pulls that new folk thing back in with a fiddle squeal. An almost hypnotic piece is tossed on the table here with a dare. Something so fresh can never be considered old. Songs like “Six Months” and “Riverstone” are lyrically based: the things that are not wanted are usually things that are unavailable, smoothed by time to be less resistant to the currents of life. Closing out with “Oh My Love. Oh My Sweet,” Wildflower goes out in the way it came in, on a soft spring breeze: fragrant, brightly colored, and sweet. —Lisa Whealy
Samuel Alty‘s Hammering Nails into the Sky is a folk/singer-songwriter album that draws heavily off a standard flamenco guitar idea: the bass notes play a straight rhythm while the treble plays a speedy, syncopated rhythm over it. Most of the tracks here play off some variation of that theme, creating a unique, energetic feel to the record.
“Be Brave” is the most identifiably flamenco of the tunes: the rhythms are familiar, the tune’s in a major key, and the whole thing makes me want to sway and dance cheerfully. “Guiding Hands” is a minor-key, even ominous flamenco-inspired piece that retains the treble/bass relationship. That relationship diversifies in “Life It Is for Living,” where the stand-up bass plays the ostinato notes and Alty uses the whole rattling guitar as the counterpoint; it’s inverted in “Revolution,” where the treble is the repeated and the bass and vocals go wild. “Travelling Song” is a complicated instrumental ballad where both the bass and the treble are moving around. Alty does an impressive job turning one overacrching idea into a wide array of compelling song structures.
There are a few tunes where Alty breaks from his theme. “Sanction” is a near 7-minute singer/songwriter tune that focuses heavily on his baritone range instead of his guitar work. It’s a spacious, sparse work, not unlike Bonnie Prince Billy in places. “Glory” is even more focused on Alty’s voice, as he multitracks himself singing and beatboxing for a song that’s completely a capella. It has a trip-hop vibe to it, which is a break in the mostly-speedy tempos of the record.
Hammering Nails into the Sky is a fun, intriguing, intricate record that is probably unlike what you’re listening to right now, unless you’re listening to José González or going flamenco dancing. It has charms on first blush and rewards multiple listens. If you’re looking to expanding your musical horizons today, definitely check out Hammering Nails into the Sky.
Indie folk rock musicians Red Sammy & Some Charming Trespassers channel some greats here in their latest release, True Believer, dropping this fall. Taking a page from the song book of Tom Waits is a challenge, often landing in a crash. This is definitely not the case here, with a collection of eight songs that feel like a throwback to something past, a campfire along the train tracks of life.
Adam Trice is Red Sammy, and that is an important distinction to make. His songwriting is inspired, simple and down to earth. Storytelling is a lost art to many indie musicians; a few come to mind, like Sedona’s decker. and Brooklyn transplant Charles Ellsworth. Both pull in ghosts from the greats as shadows to call on. Some Charming Trespassers are a band of highly skilled musicians including Sarah Kennedy (violin), John Decker (resonator), and Rebecca Edwards (backing vocals) who, with the help of sparse arrangements, play a simple part in the success of this album. They are vehicles that get out of the way and let the music soar.
Opener “Caribou” takes this release out in a stampede for people not yet familiar with Red Sammy. Subtle and powerful, it weaves together a beautiful violin and loaded lyricism. At a little over three minutes, a lifetime is a picture the song paints. “Barefoot in Baltimore” is a love song in the tradition of Appalachian bluegrass, except this is coming out of Maryland, which makes it all the more transcendent of race and economic status. Music is a great equalizer, and “Barefoot” is just that.
“Chickenwire” is poetry bleeding with pain, and “Western Bound” is pain bleeding with hope, all done with skilled arrangements and poetry. Strange thing is, the message is the same, just wrapped in different ribbon. “Heaven the Electric Sky” is filled with harmonic echoes that flesh out the song, reinforcing the band’s stated desire for sparse arrangements on this album. The music shines. Choices like this make this album, and indie music in general, such a force.
“I Knew You Better” is a testament to thinking and how this is a dangerous pastime. Violin-driven, it is terrific. “Santa Ana Wildfire” is that drawn out feeling that isolates us all. As a bit of sequencing genius, it tells a beautiful story that is a complete contradiction and paradox to the previous song. True Believer closes with “Aunt Mary”: sometimes all there is in life is the comfort of an old song, a campfire, a cold beer or a cup of coffee with friends. Desperation is a shared and palpable thing, with taste, sound, and feel. Let this one settle in like a pair of well-worn boots. —Lisa Whealy
Brother Moses‘ sophomore EP Legendsbuilds on their debut Thanks for All Your Patienceby upgrading the sonics of their rubbery, laidback, Spoon-meets-Pavement indie-rock. Their debut EP was almost preternaturally chill; Raymond Richards (Local Natives) gives their sound some punch, while not losing their goofy, waltz-through-it-all charm.
The easiest place to see this is in “Older,” the lone track present on both EPs. The opening synth has become fatter, the drums are more resonant, the tempo is slightly sped up, and the guitars are brighter. The overall effect is like cranking up the saturate knob on a picture: it’s the same thing, but bigger, brighter, and warmer. Elsewhere, the saturation holds in the form of more reverb (the guitars on “Time to Leave”), more ambiance (“Crazy Eyes”), and more expansive songwriting touches (“Pretend”). Some tracks sound like post-punk; some sound like Vampire Weekend chilling way, way out. Throughout, the band is playing with what they can do in a studio, experimenting with what exactly the sounds in their heads can be with a lot of equipment at their disposal.
Closer “Please Stop” is probably the furthest push of their experiments, putting all of their sonic elements together into one track. Mashing all of their ideas into one place results in a tune that doesn’t quite sound like anyone: James Lockhart’s lolling drawl amps up to an anthemic soar over an indie-rock band that has thoroughly ingested modern indie music and spit out their own distinct version of it. It’s a fantastic tune that is more than the sum of its parts–and the parts are all pretty great on their own.
Legends is a brief six songs, but the growth and development from their first EP shows that they’ve got a lot of ideas. Brother Moses has got a great thing going, and you should jump on that.
John John Brown‘s The Roadis brilliant, drawing heavily from traditional Appalachian sounds and modern folk revivalists to create 10 songs of back-porch folk that are fully realized in scope and yet casual in mood.
Brown’s dusky voice, an immaculate production job, and a deft arranging hand makes this duality possible. “Dust and Bones” pairs a laid-back percussion line with a spacious fingerpicking rhythm at the beginning, before introducing subtle bass work and two different organ sounds for color. Brown’s superbly comfortable vocal delivery caps off the song beautifully. Even from the first listen, it’s as familiar and lovely as a shirt you put on for the first time and immediately know it will be your favorite one.
“On Our Own” pulls the same trick: the yearning solo violin, distant pedal steel, and hushed background vocals accentuate a lyric set of loss and redemption beautifully. “The Wind” is about as ominous as Brown gets, creating a sense of adventurous danger via keening harmonica. The title track is a jubilant folk tune grounded in big, round bass and a huge chorus vocal melody. “Spirits in the Silence” and “What I Really Want to Do” are a bit more pop-oriented-folk, sort of like Counting Crows, Five for Fighting, or Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.” Brown carefully crafts each tune to have individual elements that set the songs apart, yet never deviate from the overall chill experience.
This album is magnetic: it’s hard to stop listening once you start. You’ll know all the sounds on each of the songs in The Road, but they way Brown makes them come together is barely short of magic. It’s a rare artist that can make the familiar sound brand new and exciting; Brown is that artist.
Last time I checked in with B. Snipes, he was singing a pristine, delicate folk tune about death taking him on a tour of a city. So it was quite a surprise to find that American Dreameropens up with a wide-open, convertible-top-down, vintage American pop-rock tune. It’s a double surprise to realize that it’s the title track. (“We’re going somewhere new, y’all!”) I may miss folky B. Snipes, but his new direction is just as satisfying. If you’re into American pop, 1950-now, you’ll be all over this record.
After the blast of AM radio that is the opener, Snipes throws down a tune that’s an Isbell-style country rocker in the verses with a sunshiny ’50s pop chorus. It comes off a bit like Ivan and Alyosha’s work. The middle of the record hearkens back to a time when Roy Orbison was huge (“Amy, in Chicago”), country was turning into rock via pop music (“Sweet Eleanor”), and unironic sentiment was cool (“Easy Things,” which has a spiritual sibling in Jason Mraz’s non-rapping work). If you love the Avett Brothers at their most pensive, “Completely” will scratch an itch that probably hasn’t been touched much since “Murder in the City.”
The record is smooth, clean, clear, and deeply listenable. It’s a pop record shorn of the high glitz that the wall of sound and its children would put on the pop sound. They don’t make ’em like this much anymore.
But right when it seems like B. Snipes is ready to cap off a timeless-sounding record, he makes another shift. “Red White Blues” is a gentle yet concerned rebuke of political polarization couched in a tune that sounds like a mix of Bright Eyes, Sufjan Stevens, and the Arcade Fire. That’s a lot of referents to pack into one song, but there’s a lot of song to go around. It’s the easy highlight of the record, made all the more impressive because it still manages to hang with the rest of the record in mood despite being completely different thematically. The sonics here are louder, but they’re still in the same, very American vein. (Which is funny, because The Arcade Fire is Canadian.) The tune provides a fitting bookend to the opener, which puts faith in being an American dreamer; “Red White Blues” is full of practical exhortations about what we need to do to keep being American dreamers.
American Dreamer is an American pop record through and through. It draws from earlier eras of pop’s history but makes statements about our current condition through them. The songs are fun, pretty, interesting and thought-provoking. How much more can you ask for in a pop record? This is great work. Highly recommended.
The Coconut Kids’ debut release This Time Last Year proves to be a delightful and complex four-track EP. The instrumentation is comprised of trumpet, two lovely ukuleles, an acoustic guitar, and relaxing percussive elements to create a jazzier Jack Johnson sound. And the powerful vocals pair so well with the relaxed jazzy instrumentation. Finally, the moody lyrics pair with the relaxed, jazzy sound to create an emotional texture all its own.
The tug-and-pull lyrics combine with the delightful instrumentation to create a beautiful incongruity. Right off the bat, the first track showcases this as the repeated lyric “It all went wrong” is paired with a flirty combination of the ukulele and trumpet. The vocal pairings on this EP also prove beautiful. “Richman” showcases the perfect sassy soprano/seductive baritone combination that works so well. In fact, the whole EP gives off Once vibes; I can picture these two people singing these songs to each other in a Once-like world.
“Lullaby (Don’t Say A Thing)” stands out from the rest of the tracks in the many layered vocals and more melancholic sound with the guitar and ever-present trumpet. It’s a slower track with a powerful Adele-like voice that will be sure to blow you away. “Lullaby (Don’t Say A Thing)” is a pleasant way to close out the EP.
The Wild Reeds’ three-track EP Best Wishes is like an assorted candy sampler displaying the range of sounds The Wild Reeds is capable of producing. The lyrics showcase a variety of human emotions such as hope, dejection, and self-awareness. Similarly, the overall sound varies from classic singer/songwriter to folk-country. The one thing that ties the tracks together is the perfect harmonization from the array of female vocalists.
The lyrics of “Everything Looks Better (In Hindsight)” explore the emotions of dejection, balancing regret and acceptance. The emotive lyrics eventually lead up to the track’s lyrical and instrumental climax, going from gentle fingerpicking to a voracious guitar/drum kit/keys combination. “What I Had In Mind” gives off a very Eisley sound, showcasing the band’s perfectly harmonizing vocal layering. Then “Love Make Me A Fool” comes on and a more cheery folk-country track enters my senses. The track’s classic country rhythms, self-aware lyrics and robust instrumentation make a refreshing end to an eclectic EP.
The Wild Reeds’ Best Wishes EP is an assorted delight to the senses. —Krisann Janowitz
I’ve been doing a lot of long, uninterrupted work sessions lately, so I’ve been getting deep into instrumental modernist classical and new-classical work to accompany them. (“Canto Ostinato” by Simeon Ten Holt blows my mind.) Mattias Phillips‘ Provisationsis a solo piano work that fits into that listening regimen: the short pieces here range from high modernist abstract (“She doesn’t like it”) to classical delicacy (“Decision”) to Liszt-esque romantic-era blitzes (“Everyday Labor”) to minimalist-influenced pieces (“Moral Hangover”).
Phillips shows off his breadth as a composer here; that diversity will help listeners who may not be as familiar with solo piano work. This album does not feel like 14 tracks of the same thing; there are obvious peaks and valleys throughout the work. The tunes themselves maintain a passionate energy. Phillips notes that these are more than impromptu improvisations but not much more; the thrill of creation is still audible. It will be interesting to see if further work from Phillips hones in on one of the many styles he puts forth here and goes longform on it, or continues in the “diverse short piece” vein. Either could be interesting. A whole album of solo piano music probably isn’t what readers of this blog usually are listening to, but I think y’all could dig this.
Strangers by Accident‘s five-song EP establishes the male/female duo as somewhere between the wistful, major key acoustic pop of the Weepies and the spartan acoustic delicacy of Joshua Radin’s early work. They can get a little bit noisier than either outfit (“Straight to Space,” “Borderline”), but their sweet spot is a bright, clear, open sound garnished with a twist of sadness (or two).
“Steal” is the opener and the tone-setter, with a single acoustic guitar, a tambourine, two vocalists, and ambient guitar marking out the sonic space that the duo explore for the rest of the EP. Standout “Borderline” opens as the quietest track: the lyrics are poignant and unafraid to take on the darkness in the world, like a Rocky Volotato song. It grows to one of their noisiest, with a raucous electric guitar line crashing in intermittently. “Busted Heart” and “Hold Me Down” are both just great acoustic pop songs; sometimes you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to make a really great car. If you’re into the Civil Wars, The Local Strangers, or other classy male/female duos I’m not familiar with, you’ll love Strangers by Accident.
O by Holy ’57 owes an incredible debt to the carefree first two albums of Vampire Weekend. The four tracks here are all sun-drenched and wrapped in the swaying-yet-choppy rhythms that Ezra Koenig and co. virtually trademarked. Holy ’57 trades out the helter-skelter guitar runs for tropical synths, making a sound even more upbeat and sunshiny than VW did. The songs bounce, leap, skip, and twirl their way through my speakers, making it impossible not to smile.
The topics fit with the vibe: “Venice, CA” is about having youthful adventures in the titular city, “126.96.36.199” deals with a breakup and/or social failures by a nostalgic longing for the ’90s, and “Jep Shuffle” builds its chorus around a dance (although it doesn’t tell you how to do the Jep Shuffle, just that it exists). That last track is the unavoidable track: it’s a nigh-on-perfect summer pop song, with verses that build, a chorus that pays off in spades, and rhythms that make me want to move. It’s a sin that this song isn’t everywhere, because it is awesome. Those looking for a song to close out their summer with need to look no farther than O, where there’s at least one (if not three!) tunes that can do that for you. Awesome.
Deer Scout‘s customsis a slight, intimate object: Dena Miller’s four-song EP barely breaks 10 minutes. But in those 10 minutes, her unadorned songwriting makes a statement. She opens with “holy ghost,” which is nothing more than delicate guitar picking, earnest alto vocals, and beautifully complex lyrics. Fans of the dense stylings of Lady Lamb will see similar sparks here. The song is beautifully balanced: there’s not much to it, but it all sounds vital and immediate. It grabbed my attention and didn’t let go.
“little state” and “up high” feature strumming more and have more of a distinct song structure, recalling Waxahatchee’s early stylings. Although there are referents, Miller’s vocal melodies are put together in her own way (the interval jumps on the chorus of “little state,” the confident delivery of everything in “up high”); she is establishing herself as a songwriting voice here. The short set closes with “train song,” which splits the difference between the dense lyrics and fingerpicking of the opener and the concrete song structures of the center two pieces. Her voice is excellent here as well. Fans of women singer/songwriters, intimate sketches, and minimalism will find much to love in customs.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.