Every time that someone sends me western swing, I want to write this opening paragraph again. Let’s just say I love this genre, not many other people my age do, and I feel like I have to do my part to help it out whenever I can. Pearls Mahone‘s Echoes from the Prairie is about as squarely planted in Western Swing as you can possibly be, which means that there’s sassy vocals, perky arrangements, and enough good vibes to go around two or three times. It’s also a lot of fun, regardless of if you’re into the genre or not.
So, just by being a western swing band, Mahone is calculated to get a high score from me. Beyond that, she’s an incredible artist: her voice is powerful and evocative and her choice of songs is brilliant. (Bonus: She’s got a song about my home state of Oklahoma.) Mahone’s voice is a confident alto that can be used a variety of ways: she can pull off vulnerable, sultry, sassy, and sentimental. “Saint & Sinner” also captures in a title the two sides of the coin that she espouses lyrically here: the brash “I Had Someone Else…” (“before I had you / and I’ll have someone after you’re gone”) and materialistic “Flash Your Diamonds” contrast with more tender work, like the nostalgic “Oklahoma Hills” and Billie Holliday’s “All of Me.”
The clutch of tunes at the end of the record is particularly entrancing: the last few start off with a thrilling “St. James Infirmary” and a earnest-in-sound “Old Time Religion” (which is elsewhere known as “I’ve Got That Old Time Religion,” a different song than the traditional “Old Time Religion,” but we’re getting into the weeds now). A short a capella version of “Go to Sleep Little Baby” (which you may know from O Brother Where Art Thou) comes next. Then Mahone seals the deal with a sparse, beautiful version of Tom Waits’ “Long Way Home,” one of my favorite tunes.
Mahone is thoroughly vintage in sound and immage (even evoking vintage typography and photography on her album cover), but she’s crafted an album of tunes that are perky, enthusiastic, and charming. If I had my way, everybody would listen to this and fall in love with Western swing. But until that great (hypothetical) day, we have a remarkable album to enjoy in Echoes from the Prairie.
The Weather Machine‘s self-titled record was a marvel powered by inventive folk-inspired acoustic songwriting, deft lyrics, and an earnest DIY sheen. The “hyper-literate story songs and Dylan-esque prophetic jams” of their 2013 release are still present in Peach, but they’re tucked inside a new-found appreciation for Americana rock. Peach‘s focus is squarely on the sounds that The Weather Machine is able to wring from a well-rounded quintet, and this results in new charms.
But before I start detailing the changes, let me not get too carried away. Peach is still The Weather Machine’s doing. The ominous “Lilium” is right there with “Skeleton Jack” and “Alexei Mikhail.” The jaunty folk of “Some Evenings Are for Dancing” has the same wonderful tension between wry and passionate that characterized so much of their previous release. Okay, so, there’s a little more electric guitar, and it’s not “So, what exactly does it say?” (To paraphrase the genius’ refrain: “But what is?”) There’s still enough acoustic work to appease fans of that which was–and I am one of them.
So, about that electric guitar. The Weather Machine is now very firmly a rock band (among other things), because you can’t write a Springsteen-esque rock song as good as “Wannabe Cowboys” and not at least throw -rock on the end of your genre. There’s a cello* swooping its way through the track, but it’s not a folk-rock tune in the same way that The Low Anthem occasionally makes folk-rock. This is not a rocked-out folk tune: this is a rock song that has some folk instruments in it. The distinction is important for tunes like the super-fun “As Long as We Get Along,” because there’s more screamin’ guitar in that tune than you could possibly expect from a folk outfit. But it still has cello running all through it. It’s a tension–something The Weather Machine is good at.
Even though tension is their forte, they’re making steps toward integration: “Wild West Coast” and “How to Get to Roseburg” are the minor and major key exemplars, respectively, of melding the ideals and instrumentaion of folk and rock on this record. “Wild West Coast” is a low-slung tune that calls up some “The National lost in Arizona” thoughts, while “Roseburg” fuses hyperactive drums and insistent bass to a string-led hoedown stomp.
But right when you think you’ve got them figured out, the title track includes feathery arpeggiators, dreamy bossa nova vibes, and prominent acoustic fingerpicking in a track that sounds like Braids ft. Josh Ritter. (And what a track that would be.) “Breakup Song” and “MC vs. The Digital Age” are as theatrical as a good show tune should be. Things are happening on this record, y’all.
Peach is a record that expands on the template set out by their self-titled record, pushing them in all sorts of directions. Purists need not apply, but those who are interested in what else creative minds* have up their sleeves will enjoy the record immensely.
*correction: originally written as “violin.” It’s way high, though.
**correction: originally written as “the minds that set steel drums in a folk tune.” Apparently the thing that sounds like steel drums is also a cello. I’m as surprised as you are.
As I’ve been listening to Nettles‘ work (and relistening; Locust Avenue is a grower), one phrase keeps impressing itself upon me: “ominous flutes.” Sometimes the adjective varies, as “violent,” “dissonant,” and “eerie” have come to mind as well. Whichever modifier you choose, it’s an odd pairing with the word “flute.” But the stark contrast of the term could be a synecdoche of the album: this is a slow, rolling, pastoral album in the vein of Songs:Ohia, but it’s also a heavily-arranged album with complex textures that border on the chaotic.
You don’t hit the flutes right away: opener “Annuals” actually has more in common with Nick Drake than Jason Molina, as the fingerpicking guitar style is much more in line with the former than the latter. Guion Pratt’s straight-forward, earnest timbre calls up the Magnolia Electric Co. singer, however. “Brando” has some choppy strum that is reminiscent of Molina; paired with the vocals, there’s a strong connection to slow-core style (even though the song is fast). And, yes, the flutes come in. They’re not as ominous as they will be, but they show up. The album unfolds: it doesn’t throw everything at you at once.
It’s “Body Inside Out” where the flutes really start to work their magic. The tune is a darker one than the first two: still pastoral in its delicate piano and roving melodic lines, but with some darkness creeping in around the corners. By the middle, the flutes, generally used for airy support, are giving me the heeby-jeebies. That tension is real. It’s the sort of thing that draws you in.
The title track most clearly takes up the slowcore motifs, spinning out a patient, pause-filled song. Again, the tension between beauty and ominousness is present throughout, drawing me in. This time it’s not flutes (they are there!), but the back-and-forth between the guitar and the silence that punctuates. By the end of the seven-minute track, the guitar, vocals, percussion and flutes all come together to create the sort of quiet roar that comes of being fully involved in a quiet piece of music.
The rest of the album follows in suit: acoustic guitar, flute, and occasional other contributing instruments deliver tunes that range from well-developed, fully-arranged pieces (“The Quarry,” “Rogue Body”) to eerie minor-key pieces (“The Knot”) to slow-burners (“Pyramid of Skulls”). Pratt’s voice is a calming guide through the landscapes he builds, and the overall results are unique and interesting. Locust Avenue is an album that requires multiple listens, but if you give it the time it asks for, it will show you treasures.
Oakland blessed us with Blisses B, a quartet whose latest LP graces listeners with a bright disposition and diverse sounds that make it pleasantly hard to categorize. Sea Level Astronomy brilliantly and organically blends folk, rock and psychedelia into a record oozing Vitamin D. The band’s third full-length album evokes an animated, underdog tone through upbeat catchiness and folky, wholesome vocals. Its mentality is similar to Weezer’s “Beverly Hills,” but not as loud and with a bit more soul.
“Montevideo” starts us off with an energizing, rallying set of vocals and bass line that pretty much guarantees we’ll have a good time through the rest of the tracks. It resembles Kings of Leon’s “Taper Jean Girl” through its pop-art vocals and best-put-on-your-dancing-shoes rhythm.
Tunes like “Weapons Grade” and “Side Hug” are predominantly sun-kissed tracks. “Weapons Grade” chills things out with a clear, beachy grooviness. It reminds us that being the underdog can be fun, laidback, and bringing not a whole lot of in-your-face expectations. “Side Hug” shares some of those low-maintenance qualities, but with a little more oomph. Lacing enough reggae to weave together an additional layer of optimism, this tune is a Corona in song form. It feels, quite literally, like receiving a side hug — non threatening, friendly, always down for one.
“Figurative Light” shifts down a gear in vivid cheeriness and turns up seriously heartfelt guitar sentiment that builds to a fervid solo at 2:35. The song captures a raw, honest sense of eagerness that fits perfectly into the puzzle of power in perspective. It balances the heavy positive charge the album transmits by electrifying us with something darker in hue, more grounding. Bloc Party-esque, “Figurative Light” hones that happy-sad beauty found in a sunrise or sunset.
Sea Level Astronomy has an undeniably warm sepia tint. Blisses B brings the California sunshine with its feel-good, weightless vibe and none of the damaging rays. The best part: Blisses B’s ability to prove it’s cool to not be cool, bigger to not be big and inexplicably genius to not be mainstream genius. —Rachel Haney
Brett Borovic’s The Fearless and the Faint highlights the great talent of Brett Borovic in a myriad of ways. Each song has a unique flavor to it via the many different instrument pairings throughout the album; whether it’s harmonica, violin, guitar, bass, or drums, you can find them all and more on this album. (It is simply amazing that the only instrument not performed by Brett Borovic himself is Nathan Tulenson’s violin.) Borovic’s voice is also a very powerful instrument. His often-soulful voice adds a certain sensuality to his music, especially when paired with instruments like the piano and electric guitar (“Day Becomes Night”).
Many instruments come together to make the very unique sound, self-described as “Existential Western Indie Rock.” Picture this: the song begins with a piercing violin intro, then introduces a gentle drum beat after a couple measures, followed by a spaghetti western guitar riff. I just described opener “A Truth I Never Thought I’d Find.” Overall, the album effortlessly combines classical elements, such as the violin and piano, with a modernized spaghetti western sound achieved mostly through the bass and guitar.
Although the album is often a fiery affair, a highlight off the album is actually one of the softer songs, “All I Thought I Wanted.” Borovic softens his powerful voice a bit to fit with the sweet lyrics and gentle strumming of the guitar that simply demands that you sway. The last song “So Blue” is also notably softer and more melodic in its instrumentation.
The dark and fiery moments of The Fearless and the Faint come together with its playful Spaghetti Western influences and occasional softer moments to make a truly unique sound. The Fearless and the Faint is out now! -Krisann Janowitz
I don’t think I’ll ever tire of cheery power-pop with crunchy guitars, effervescent melodies, and heartfelt angst. Sam Vicari‘s Giving Up is a testament to the undying power of the charming genre, combining Death Cab for Cutie-esque vocals with the clanging guitars and big drums of an old-fashioned guitar-rock trio. Of the ten songs on the record, only two make it above 2:30 and break 3:10. (Holding to that 2:20 pop song form hearkens back even earlier in pop’s history.) I don’t think there are any instruments on the record except guitar, bass, drums, and vox–sometimes simple purity is the best.
But there’s nothing retro or nostalgic about Giving Up; instead, Vicari delivers fresh, modern pop nuggets like “All and Everyday,” “Looking for a Warm Heart,” and “October” in rapid succession. If you’re into summery, cheery guitar-pop, Sam Vicari’s Giving Up will thoroughly satisfy you. Crank the windows down and the volume up.
A breathy saxophone is one of the first and last sounds you hear on Unreal, James Irwin‘s ’80s-inspired chill-out album. Irwin is a laid-back cat: rubbery bass, feathery woodwinds and flutes, reverb-heavy guitars, Irwin’s relaxed vocals and easygoing tempos form the predominant framework for tunes that unfold at their own pace. The resulting amalgam sounds like if Matthew Squires and the Learning Disorders somehow time traveled into 1986 Miami.
Tunes like the title track, “Face Value,” and “Sahra” aren’t tropical or Caribbean in any large sense; instead, they capture the languid haze that was layered over seemingly all ’80s cop dramas. Tension here isn’t ominous; it’s simply a push and pull of instruments. Snappy high hat pushes the tempo while pad synths hold it back in “Face Value.” The warm synths that open “Sahra” give an almost chillwave vibe before gentle sleigh bells and plodding guitar flip the script entirely: “Sahra” is actually a slow ballad.
The title track reminds me of M83’s “Midnight City” in its use of saxophone and its deep commitment to a particular style of sound, but the tunes couldn’t be more different and still be evoking the same era. (“Michigan Miami” is the one that actually appropriates a driving ’80s electro pop sound.) The synths that Irwin uses aren’t the sharp, whiny synths common to modern EDM or the twinkly ones common to stereotypical ’80s pop. The pad synths are diffused whispers that call up memories without being the lead element (most of the time). Given those synths as a base, the title track relies on an almost doo-wop bass line to bring a bit of motion to the straight-up-and-down drumming and gauzy backdrop. This causes the final product to come off seeming like a recently-unearthed mid-’80s predecessor of The Antlers’ work.
But Irwin isn’t doing a nostalgia reconstruction here: “Blood Going Back in Time” and “Siberia China” draw on modern indie-pop elements. The delicate fingerpicking, separated drumming and distant synths of “Siberia China” call Clem Snide to mind (as well as the aforementioned Squires). Standout “Blood Going Back in Time” fuses the ’80s sentiments to distinctly modern, quirky guitar production to really come into his own sound. The vocals, arrangement, and cryptic lyrics (including several prominent references to George Henry Wallace) make it a tune worth listening to multiple times.
Nostalgia is a dangerous game sometimes, because it can seem like there’s no creativity there. James Irwin’s Unreal is more than just a time-travelogue to a particular sound. It’s a re-envisioning of a certain mood and sonic space with modern developments included. If you’re into the ’80s, well and good–you’ll be all over this. However, if you’re into adventurous, thoughtful chill electro or indie-pop, you’ll be just an enamored with the album.
Yeesh‘s No Problem is the fantastic result of 40 years of rock experimentation. If you scour through the impressive sonic melange of tracks like “Slip,” “Linda Lee,” and “Genesis Pt. 1,” you’ll find traces of (deep breath) Black Flag, the Minutemen, various grunge howlers, Blur, Modest Mouse, The Strokes, The Vaccines, The Pixies, Hot Water Music, The Menzingers, countless unnamed punk bands, and post-rock bands that emphasize the rock. What’s not included might be easier to list than what is. (No reggae or folk, for example.)
This level of sonic re-appropriation and pastiche makes it difficult to review; each song is its own distinct head trip. “Friends/Shadows” is the most frantic Menzingers song never recorded, with a math-rock breakdown for the heck of it. “Different Light” is a mid-tempo singalong made unusual by atypical reverb settings on the guitar; the propulsive “Watch Yr Step” lives on the boundary of punk and post-hardcore. “Zakk Radburn Teenage Detective” starts out with chiming guitars reminiscent of early ’00s indie-pop, then layers the most brutal guitar noise of the entire album on top of it. They never resolve the tension there, instead using it to power some start/stop acrobatics.
Listening to all of No Problem is a mind-bending experience. Yeesh doesn’t see any contradiction in having soaring guitar lines compete with gnarly low-end rhythm guitar (closer “Shock” most prominently, but it’s everywhere); they don’t see any problem in mixing poppy melodies, brute force guitars, polyrhythmic rhythm section, and artistic guitar effects. This kitchen sink approach to songwriting results in something truly inventive and creative: a set of ten songs that kept me guessing the entire time. If you think that complex arrangements can and should be set in the service of pummeling eardrums, No Problem may be high on your year-end list.
Daniel G. Harmann has been firmly on my radar since 2007, when The Books We Read Will Bury Us made its way into my life. His lush, romantic, slow-moving work helped me first write the phrase “Rainy Day Makeout Music.” Since then he’s gone in all sorts of directions: he’s picked up a noisy rock band (The Trouble Starts) and gone voice-and-acoustic-guitar solo on different projects. The excellent White Mountains benefits from all his various configurations: the whip-smart indie-rock writing incorporates both fury and romance.
You need look no farther than tracks two and three to see how this juxtaposition works out. “Pistols at Dawn” starts out with stark pseudo-grunge clean guitar tone before introducing organ and tempo-pushing drums. The track unfolds as a churning-yet-wiry track, a simmering heat that never boils over but threatens to at all times. Harmann balances the muscle and the melody with his dramatic vocal performance, walking the line between aggressive rock howls and aggrieved indie-pop vocal theatrics. It ends in a drum solo, because why not? It rocks. It’s like Silversun Pickups, but with a window that lets some light in.
“Anna” follows “Pistols,” and it couldn’t be more different. Composed of the same general elements (organ, drums, guitar, DGH’s vocals) with the addition of a Wurlitzer, the song is a mid-tempo tune that showcases the keys and Harmann’s emotive vocals. There’s no aggression here, whereas the last track had the threat of it everywhere. It’s beautiful in a way that hearkens back to his previous work.
This tension goes back and forth throughout the album. “Bastion” is a piano-led indie-pop tune with trembling vocals. The guitar-driven “It’s Fine, It’s Fine” is one of the fastest rock tunes. “New Concerns” encompasses both feelings at once: it’s one of the heaviest tracks here, with a biting guitar tone, brittle vocals, and ominous piano undertones. But there’s also a glorious, dramatic, Muse-esque piano run halfway through that evokes a different mood on top of the one that’s already there. It’s a complex tune with a lot of payoff. Closer “Elkland” meshes the two ideas even more, layering chiming guitar notes over a gritty rhythm guitar to play with the distance between aggression and mourning. It’s evocative, to say the least.
Daniel G. Harmann’s White Mountains offers up complex, satisfying compositions. Harmann’s distinctive voice adds character to the evocative tunes that play with the borders between rock and indie-pop, resulting in an album that doesn’t sound quite like anything else going on. Harmann has honed his craft to a fine point with this release, and it’s worth checking out for any fan of “indie rock,” broadly conceived. Pre-order it here, then start with “New Concerns.”
Double albums are a massive endeavor in every sense of the word. They take a long time to write, record, listen to, and review. All of these things are relative: it does not take as long to write a double album as it does to listen to one, but it does take much longer than average to review a double album than it does a single one.
So Mon Draggor is probably wondering why I keep saying “soon! soon!” in relation to this review, especially since I love the album so much–it should be easy to write about something you’re really into, right? But these things take time, even (especially?) when I’m reviewing a dense, textured, complex, beautiful album such as Pushing Buttons / Pulling Strings.
Further complicating the work of this double album is that there are two different genres: Pushing Buttons is a nine-track electro-rock album reminiscent of The Naked and the Famous, Passion Pit, and Bloc Party. Pulling Strings‘s nine tracks are more organically oriented, although the electronic elements spill over into the indie-rock more than the indie rock spills over into the electro.
Take “Painted Wings,” which is most electro cut of Pushing Buttons. There’s a bit of Muse’s high-drama vocals, sweeping soundscapes made by layers of distant synths, and massively reverbed percussion booms. There’s a “whoa-oh” section. It’s a slow-jam club banger of the cosmic variety, instead of the sensual variety–it feels like outer space.
“Armageddon Baby” has many of the same elements, but with more straight-ahead EDM/trance beats and energy. Opener “Everyone Runs” fits Passion Pit stabs of synths over a wubby, pulsing bass for a tune that would make fans of the aforementioned and Imagine Dragons happy.
I know it’s not cool to invoke Imagine Dragons, but they know how to write an infectious pop song. So does Mon Draggor. The vocal melodies throughout both albums are the sort that stick in your mind. Richard Jankovich’s vocals have the high-pitched tone that can firm up into perfect pop melodies or get yelpy into ecstatic/aggrieved howls (see Bright Eyes). The ease with which the songs go through your ears and into your mind is a credit: it’s hard to write 18 songs that are all distinct enough that the listener remembers them. Sure, I can hum individual tracks like “On Your Own” because of the soaring vocals, but keeping a whole double album going is a rare skill. I don’t want to skip tracks here, and that is a rare thing in the double album.
I want to keep touting Pushing Buttons, because I could (“Secret Science”! “We Found the Limit”!)–but I have to get to Pulling Strings before I start writing a tome. (That double album problem again.) Pulling Strings is a more relaxed affair, but it’s not quite folk. It has more affinity with The National, a band that’s quiet in their own idiosyncratic way and has the ability to get loud. The best example of this is “It’s Quiet Now,” which could be lazily called folk but has a lot more moving parts that create a unique atmosphere. The trilling, keening guitar is reminiscent of The Walkmen’s work, but the thrumming bass, gentle fingerpicking and delicate piano create a unique atmosphere. It’s a standout in regard to either album.
“Recon by Candlelight” starts with a similarly spacious arrangement of fingerpicked guitar and delicate piano before expanding into a beautiful tune that grows by adding more and more parts on top of each other. (That’s an electro song structure and arrangement style peeking through.) “Curtains” starts off with looped violin notes before layering vocoder on top; the giddy experimentation and unusual juxtapositions call to mind Sufjan Stevens’ The Age of Adz, but in a darker sonic realm. The song eventually cranks up with drums and screaming guitar; it’s a moving, beautifully arranged tune. “Love is All Around” blurs the lines between the two albums, as electronic beats and fuzzy synths live in harmony with melancholy electric guitar. The eerie “Magic Shilo” does the same. They’re all excellent.
Pushing Buttons / Pulling Strings is that rare double album that’s worth every minute. Richard Jankovich is at the top of his game, delivering an astonishing amount of thoughtful, well-arranged work in two different (but subtly related) genres. If you’re into electronic pop or indie-rock with an electronic bent, Mon Draggor will scratch both itches in grand fashion.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.