We’re getting to the point in history where long band names like Day Laborers & Petty Intellectuals are necessary. Instead of shrugging and repeating the “what’s in a name” platitude, it’s worth taking note of DLPI’s moniker. The indie/country/folk band puts great thought into its complex, verbose lyrics on this self-titled album; the Bright Eyes-esque profusion of religious musings in “The Beginning” echoes both Oberst’s memorable turns of phrase and penchant for ratcheting up to a frenzied delivery.
The highly structured chaos of Bright Eyes’ “Road to Joy” is a good RIYL for DLPI in musical as well as lyrical qualities. Every part of the sound is recorded with precision and clarity, moving in the opposite direction from Iron & Wine’s hazy folk sounds. Opener “What’s the Meaning of This Magic?” includes galloping drums, dramatic trumpet, sweeping violin, and vocals somewhere between the self-assured delivery of Cake and the apocalyptic fervor of Modest Mouse. The whole thing fits inside an ominous alt-country frame. It’s a vastly intriguing opening salvo, for sure.
“Irene, Goodnight” is a similarly dark but less overtly country tune; “What the Hell Happened?” is bouncy enough in the bass and acoustic guitars to be considered poppy. (If you’re into 4H Royalty’s work, you’ll be into this track.) But the core of the album is “The Beginning,” which uses all of the tools that DLPI puts forth to their best effect. Start there, for sure. This isn’t singalong folk-pop, yet it’s very involving.
Day Laborers and Petty Intellectuals’ self-titled album is quite impressive. The recording is immaculate, the songwriting is impeccable, the lyrics are strong, and the moods are enveloping. What else are you waiting for? Go get this one.
I broke out Nik Freitas’ Saturday Night Underwater this week, because its AM-pop gold was on my mind. I’ve got the soft way on my mind because of Monsenior‘s self-titled EP, which is an excellent example of the form itself. The Irish duo is meticulous in its song constructions, purveying sweet pop melodies and tight arrangements to go with them. The band gives the RIYL of Bright Eyes, but it’s much closer to Supertramp, Paul Simon, even Fleetwood Mac (at its most structured, not its “Tusk” weird era).
“Seven Bells” leans on a gentle guitar riff, shakers, tambourine, rolling piano and pressing bass, creating that old driving feeling. You can put your top down to this one, but it’s the knowing-cool sort of drive, not the the giddy-freedom sort of trip. “Head Screwed On” is a jaunty acoustic tune that reminds me of Fionn Regan and (again) Paul Simon; that’s high praise from over here. The winding lead guitar melody expands into a wide-open pop tune, complete with either spoons or tapdancing. That’s the sort of tune I can get behind! Each of these four tunes are supported by intricate arrangements that don’t self-consciously draw attention to themselves, which is nice in the chamber-pop era. (Don’t worry, I still love chamber-pop. But the change of pace is nice!)
If you’re disillusioned by the fact that rap, dubstep, country, rock and pop are all converging as one amorphous pop sound, let Monsenior’s four-song EP remind you that in the minds of at least a few holdouts, pop means something specific. Cheery hooks, acoustic guitar, piano (“Simple Miss”), and an unassuming backing band are all you need to get an overall shine to your pop. Monsenior has those things in spades. Here’s to pop music.
I’ve sung the praises of Pedro the Lion throughout this blog. Given The Soldier Story‘s moody indie-rock with clanging guitars, I’m going to take it as serendipitous that the second song on Rooms of the Indoors is named “A Lion.” Songwriter Colin Meyer’s voice echoes Bazan’s in tone, and the arrangement shifts from delicate thoughts to towering electric guitars at whim. The overall effect is striking, as Meyer knows how to play with tension, using layering and juxtaposition excellently.
He also knows how to make individual instrumental parts complement each other without competing: The complex, beautiful “When the Thieves Came” is constructed as if it were half clockwork and half Rube Goldberg Machine. Halfway through the tune, Meyer’s playing a spiky ditty on a clean guitar with a kick-drum stomp; the next second, the guitars and bass have distorted, the drums amp up to full-set freakout, and it sounds like a post-hardcore jam a la The Felix Culpa. Then it goes directly back to the spiky little ditty, without feeling disjointed at all. (Meyer got some songwriting help on this track from Jonny Rodgers, no stranger to intricate construction himself.)
Those skills transfer over to the rest of the tunes, whether it’s the fragile, William Fitzsimmons-esque folk of “Gray Clean Suit”; the experimental intro of “Through the Trees”; or the vast, expansive title track, which grows from a forlorn acoustic strum to a rapturous, wild conclusion. Rooms of the Indoors is an album that unfolds its intricacies over multiple listens. I found it interesting the first time, but I see it as much more than that now. Meyer has moving songwriting skills that will grip you, if you give him your attention. Recommended.
Lullatone makes beautiful, charming, instrumental twee music. Their latest release Falling for Autumn – EP is 22ish minutes of ukuleles, toy pianos, whistling, clapping, gentle horns, and hushed acoustic guitars. It perfectly appropriates the feel of fall not only in the sounds, but in the titles of songs: “here comes the sweater weather,” “raindrops plucking the last leaves from a tree,” “the biggest pile of leaves you have ever seen,” “just walking around.” Lullatone, a married duo who live in Japan, know how to turn earnest cheer into affecting, emotive work. To quote a title of one of their previous albums, these are “Soundtracks for Everyday Adventures.” I am absolutely in love with this record, and I hope that you will be too. Falling for Autumn – EP makes me unabashedly, giddily happy.
Kayte Grace bridges pop-country and folk-pop nicely, singing with a pleasant twang and keeping the arrangements jaunty and light. The four tunes on Chapter 1: Say Yes are love songs with well-developed pop chops: only one of the tunes breaks the 2:30 mark. “Decorate the World” is a clear single, with a strong melody and cheery mood; “Just Need You” adds some jazzy markers to the songwriting. “City Plans” adds some gospel vibes in the vocals and cleverly romantic lyrics, which vaults the tune to highlight status. “Farther Than This” showcases Grace’s vocal prowess in a more dramatic song, which rounds out the diverse collection nicely. Chapter 1: Say Yes is a strong opening statement from an artist with diverse skills; the EP stays centered on Grace’s strong songwriting while displaying the variety of her creative ideas. I look forward to the next chapters in this release cycle.
Are you tired of married duos singing folk-pop? ME NEITHER. The latest guy/girl duo in my inbox is Davy and Amelia, to go along with Jenny & Tyler, The Gray Havens, Destroy Nate Allen!, Venna, The Weepies, the Civil Wars, et al. Davy and Amelia’s Norah June EP leans more toward the stomping, clapping, upbeat party-folk of The Lumineers and especially Twin Forks instead of the quiet, introspective tunes of The Weepies. They also celebrate giddy romance and young married life, which sets them apart from sadder couples.
“The Summer,” “Mountain Movers” and “Norah June” (the name of their baby!) all have rousing, celebratory arrangements; “The Summer” and “Norah June” are upbeat right from the word go, while “Mountain Movers” builds to its shouted-group-vocals conclusion. “Cause Daddy’s only 22, Momma’s 21/some people say we got married young/you are the treasure of our unbreakable love/hey!” goes the chorus of “Norah June,” which means not only are they giddily in love with each other, they’re singing songs to their baby. I think that’s absolutely adorable, but I think that might send the more cynical among us running for the exits.
The songs themselves are great, full of strong instrumental and vocal melodies. The songs are predominantly based in acoustic guitar, although “Mountain Movers” shows off their elegant, cinematic piano skills nicely. If you’re not into the genre, then these four tunes won’t be exciting to you. But if you’re a fan of pop skills applied to romantic lyrics and folky arrangements, you’ll love Davy and Amelia. I look forward to hearing more about this duo in the upcoming year. Just in case you needed proof of how cute this duo is, here’s their band photo:
I’ve been listening to Roy Dahan‘s The Man in My Head for several weeks, and I’m still struggling to pin it down to words. It’s a solo project that feels like a full-band effort, as the overall mood of the tracks is more important than any single musician. David Gray would enjoy the seriousness and gravity of these tunes, but the album still has upbeat, inviting moments like “Crush.” It’s chill and relaxing, but with a sense of tension running throughout each tune.
I guess the best descriptor is adult alternative singer/songwriter, but that sells it short in so many ways. “Nothing But Miracles” starts out with a gentle, burbling fingerpicking guitar line before expanding into a wide-open chorus: “You’ll see / there’s a beautiful place to be / and I wonder if you’ll see at all.” The subtly urgent “Farewell” pulses with restrained energy, while “Maze” has a cascading, U2 sort of vibe. The album hangs together beautifully, but doesn’t obscure the high points within it. You can play this one as a full album or pick songs out of it for your playlists. That’s rare.
Dahan’s beautiful music is tough to explain but easy to love. If you’re into things as diverse as Counting Crows, Bright Eyes, Matt Nathanson, Ray LaMontagne, or The Decemberists, you’ll love Roy Dahan’s The Man in My Head.
For Tomorrow Will Worry About Itself EP is the fifth release from the immensely productive Fiery Crash in 2013. Instead of being a glut of same-y material, each release has seen Josh Jackson (not the Paste editor) grow as a songwriter. Jackson splits his time between hazy dream pop (heavy on the guitar pedals) and no-frills singer/songwriter fare (early Iron & Wine-style), and he executes both quite well.
Due to my genre loyalties, I’m a bigger fan of the guitar-and-voice ruminations that populate the back half of the album: “Cada Ano (Version Two)” upgrades the standout from June’s Practice Shots by sweetening the vocal performance and tweaking the arrangement to a gentler end. Stealing the show on two different releases, it reminds me of bands like Mojave 3 and Peter Bradley Adams. “Headed Our Way” is the only brand-new song on the back half, and it pairs Jackson in a duet with himself: his baritone low range and his tenor high range. It’s a really effective move that I hope Jackson continues to explore. A relaxed, back-porch rendition of The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” adds a nice variety to the set.
The instrumental title track opens the album with intricate guitarwork that shows off Jackson’s composing chops. “Make Sure” and “Close to Big Star” are chill indie-pop tunes which scale back the garage-y vibes that Jackson has explored on previous releases but still keep the dreamy feel.
But it’s “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” that grabbed my attention most. His version of the traditional hymn splits the difference between singer/songwriter and dream-pop, building from humble beginnings to a fully-arranged wonder at the end of the tune. It’s a beautiful rendition of a song that I didn’t think had a lot of creative room left in it after Sufjan Stevens’ masterful version, but Fiery Crash wrings the potential out of it with ragged drums, pedal steel, guitar pedals, and voice. Just beautiful.
Fiery Crash has had quite a 2013, transforming from a untempered outfit awash in reverb to a fine-tuned singer/songwriter project with a clear vision. To say that I expect great things from Fiery Crash is to undersell the great things he’s already accomplishing; I expect that many, many more people will discover Fiery Crash’s greatness soon. For Tomorrow Will Worry About Itself EP is a release you need to hear.
The delicate, personal work of Novi Split is deeply underappreciated. I understand why: the songwriting project of David J specializes in erratically-timed releases that seem purposefully calculated to fly under the radar. His 2004 release Keep Moving blew my mind, so I have powered through these roadblocks ever since then to track down his music. However, not everyone enjoys scouring the corners of the Internet for tunes (2005 forever!), so Novi Split has stayed a mostly personal joy.
But now David J has collected four songs into the Creeping Around Your Face EP, his first proper release since 2011. The two originals and two covers are delicate, gorgeous tunes that showcase everything that is good and right with this band. David J’s gentle voice sounds completely effortless, as his tenor is clear, warm, and precise. He pairs his easygoing vocals with tidy, even fragile fingerpicked acoustic work. If Iron & Wine’s early work had been recorded hi-fi, it may have sounded like this.
The title track opens the set: “hold me in the dark/until the morning light come creeping around your face.” It’s a deeply romantic tune that looks not just at the highs of love, but the trials and travails of commitment to another person: “It’s so hard to be back home/and it’s so brutal to be on your own/and it’s been two weeks now, and I haven’t changed/says we are who we are, and we essentially stay the same.” The strings swell, the banjo plucks, and the drums create a nice backdrop to the optimistic, moving conclusion: “Baby, let’s have another baby,” repeated until David J’s voice fades away.
Iris Dement’s “Our Town” comes next, with David J adding his own arrangement style to it nicely. (You may know it as the song that played throughout the whole last scene of the last episode of Northern Exposure.) David J has an ear for finding songs that have sweetness and sadness in them; among the obscure tracks spread about the Internet are covers of Robyn Hitchcock’s “Madonna of the Wasps” and Material Issue’s “Very First Lie,” which both show off the talent. “Our Town” and the other cover, Daniel Ahearn’s “Light of God,” both have that tension of sweet and sad, which I’m a total sucker for. I don’t think I’ll able to hear the originals without thinking of Novi’s versions. That’s the mark of a great cover.
“Stupid” is a little more upbeat than the other three tunes, but it still retains a gentle, nylon-strings guitar feel. A country vibe rings in this one, with an electric guitar doing its best pedal steel impression. Distant horns give the track a majestic, stately feel, and the overall impact is impressive. It’s clear that a great amount of work went into making these songs sound like they happened effortlessly.
I don’t usually throw down 500 words about four songs, but Novi Split is completely worth the treatment. The Creeping Around Your Face EP is a masterful quartet of tunes by an artist who has been doing this for a very long time. If you’re a fan of intimate, personal, romantic singer/songwriters like Ray LaMontagne and David Ramirez, then you need to know about Novi Split. David J is one of the best songwriters we have writing today, and there needs to be more people on that train.
Horizon is a recurring feature where a brand-new artist with promise and room to grow gets featured.
Multi-instrumentalist Dylan Michael Bentley has a wide Neil Young streak and really loud drums. I don’t usually mention the percussion in country-rock releases, but Bentley has put a great amount of emphasis on it throughout Change in the Wind. When the skins are at their finest, the thumping bass drum and snappy snare give a punchy, raw feel to his sound (the title track, “Candle”); when they go a little awry, it gives his sound a chaotic, impassioned sound (“Knock, Knock,” “Blame It on the Weather”). Since the whole album is clearly an artist making the most of the materials at hand, the latter is more on the endearing side than the annoying one. “Woman in a White Dress” is the sort of exciting instrumental digression that makes me overlook erratic rhythms; the solid acoustic-based songwriting within more than makes up for it. There are always drummers around waiting to jump in on hot projects, you know?
Those who are interested in clockwork perfection will find elements of this release not to their ken, but did I mention there’s a big dose of Neil Young involved? Bentley’s yearning, Young-esque voice will be enough to scare off haters and pique the interest of new fans. Bentley’s got a way with a harmonica, an enthusiasm for traditional songwriting, and tons of motivation. Change in the Wind isn’t perfect, but it’s a strong opening statement from a young artist. I look forward to see where he goes from here. And I hope he picks up a drummer.
There’s a long history of happy sounds that contain sad lyrics. My mom’s favorite one is the absurdly happy breakup tune “Smoke from a Distant Fire” by Sanford-Townsend Band. I’m fond of the entirety of Paul Simon’s Graceland (except “That Was Your Mother”). Human Behavior‘s Golgotha might be my favorite “actually kind of devastating when you really listen close” album for 2013.
If you just press play instead of thinking about how the band name, title and album art go together, you’re treated to perky indie-folk-punk. Bandleader Andres Parada has a voice that works perfectly for the genre: it’s warbly, a touch nasal, and completely earnest. If you’re intrigued by Aaron Weiss of MeWithoutYou, early John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats), Andrew Jackson Jihad, and the like, you’ll be immediately sucked in to Golgotha. The rest of the sound fits perfectly around Parada’s voice: a small choir of female voices (who sing in the same earnest manner), instrumental performances that retain an urgent “first takes only” feel, and arrangements that are large without feeling pretentious. It’s all grounded in Parada’s voice, and all flows back to his voice.
It’s “Crag” that opens the album, a jaunty tune that calls up vintage-y, Pinterest-y hipsters who attach deer antlers to their heads and such. It’s all fun and games, right? Right. “Yeshua at 12″ is dark, but the enthusiastic “Odocoileus Virginianus” is 40 seconds of wonderful! (That’s the Latin name for the whitetail deer, incidentally.) But as I progressed through the album, a dark undercurrent started to suck me in. “Vintage Dad” ends with the band forlornly, repeatedly singing “I am raccoon, and your father thinks that I am beautiful,” which is intriguing/discomforting in a Neutral Milk Hotel sort of way. “Raphus Cucullatus” is the Latinate of the dodo, and it’s a despondent acoustic strum with spoken word that seems to draw a little too close of a metaphor. It’s not overtly depressing, like Brand New or anything, but it’s, you know, just kinda hanging out in background of my brain as maybe not what it seems.
But then I listen to “Crag” again, and the phrases of the chorus are “I’ll strap antlers to my head/and I’ll attract wild dog packs/and I’ll make the woods walkable,” which is either a threat to wild dogs or a commitment to sacrifice in a bizarre way. Also the lines “I don’t want to be attractive,” “I know that I don’t love you two too,” “I’ll probably die sad/and I’ll probably do it by my hand” appear, all of which make me deeply reconsider the wisdom of sending this to my girlfriend because it’s perky and fun. In short, the layers at which you can appreciate Golgotha are multiple, but the deeper ones may render your shallower ones a little bit impotent.
So, are you into folk-punk? Are you into depressed singer/songwriters? Are you into both? If you’re into either of the first two, Golgotha is a fascinating and engaging album. If you’re in the third camp, I suspect that Human Behavior will be quite a find. It’s like a dark mirror of Illinois-era Sufjan, or an alternate-reality Mountain Goats.