Occasionally music transcends place, born from the essence of a musician and his roots to become something greater almost effortlessly. Matt C. White does that with his debut album wallow in the hollow., available via Burro Borrocho Records. Infused with a Carolina youth, the man who calls Brooklyn home packs a punch with this first effort.
White is a city man who has country oozing from his soul. Embracing Americana that emerges from deep woods country, his authentic connection to the land undoubtedly shaped production choices. He paints a landscape with instrumentation, creating rustic, back-porch ambiance. The simple instrumentation consists of guitar, mandolin, bass, and slide. Vocals are layered with claps and stomps. The occasional studio wizardry digs deep into a bag of tricks to make all this come to life on the record.
Matt C. White is a constant music-making machine, involved in projects from Charles Ellsworth and The C.O.O. to Grandpa Jack to Dead Seconds. After wallowing in the music, it is easy to hear why Alex Saltz was interested in this project. Saltz (Bruce Springsteen, Deer Tick, The Raconteurs) contributes analog mastering, which fits White’s style perfectly.
It’s apparent from the start is that this record has been a lifetime in gestation, as it is lyrically dense and sonically intelligent. Reminiscent of Australian blues musician Ash Grunwald, this is Deer Tick with a twang; strut in the best way. From the dark opener “Lie With Me” and its equally ominous sister “Can’t Get Away,” it almost feels like someone is looking over their shoulder, whistling down the street in the middle of the night. It is brilliant!
Each cut takes listener to a different space, mixing up the pace of the album. White connects people with his emotional reality by utilizing sequencing and pacing; tempo is punctuation, a memo for listeners to perk up and pay attention. “Now And Then” has an over-the-top happy feel that balances the that balances the dark of the previous track. Think Disney’s Snow White: the balance of dwarves whistling to keep from thinking about the queen. White lands a suckerpunch on “Year Of Dogs.” The darkly brilliant tune shows off the best vocal performance from White on the record.
Nearly halfway through, “Black Spiral” is a lyrical masterpiece that plumbs the depths of darkness amid an unusual mix that focuses on the background vocals. Resting points are huge, and “Intermission” feels like a special place to rise to the surface. It takes a moment to remember that this a trip into the Carolina woods, and “Have It” is that reminder. Taking a slide into “Don’t Look Over Your Shoulder,” it’s easy to slip back in front of the campfire. Raw, rustic, and real, this is the best of what makes American music great; mixed with restraint and mastered with a light hand, the analog feel is perfect. With heart and soul, grit and guts, this is the track of the record here, no question.
In the home stretch, “Words To Make You Stay” is a melancholy bookend to any Muddy Waters proclamation; the joy at the end of this record comes from feeling the roots of the artist that is Matt C. White. Somehow, the revival is at the river, and “Lost On the Way” proves that there is always a way back to one’s roots. Celebrating that place where he grew up, “Nightsky” is a flashback written by a man in the city; upbeat, with a celebratory vibe, it is also a songwriter looking forward, not back. “Fare Thee Well” is a fond adieu to listeners who wallow in the hollow. with Matt C. White. A flash of a song, does it really count, or is it really a wave that suggests “until we meet again”?
Occasionally a musician releases a debut album that seems effortless, honest, and authentic with a distinct voice as a songwriter and a vivid soundscape. This is that record, oozing inspiration and life experience. Streamers, do yourself a favor: listen to wallow in the hollow. by Matt. C. White vinyl-style, start to finish. Highly recommended.–Lisa Whealy
Luke & Emily‘s Songs to Remember Vol. 1 is a short EP that crams five fully-fleshed-out tunes into 10 minutes. The acoustic-laden songs are all sonic interpretations of texts drawn literally from the Bible, with titles that reflect the passage of the lyrics. Christians will notice that these are all “greatest hits” of scripture, from the opening of the Bible (“Genesis 1:1-5”) to doctrinal pillars (“Romans 8:1-2,” “John 1:1-5”) to encouragements in living daily life (“Philippians 4:11b-13,” “Ecclesiastes 3:11a”).
Musically there’s two milieus here: a thread of sacred music that is elegant, reverent, and traditional (check that flute and cello!) contrasted against a very Welcome Wagon-esque jaunty folk-pop. The sacred tunes (“Genesis,” “Ecclesiastes,” “Romans”) are beautiful, easily ready for “special music” sections of traditional worship services. Meanwhile, “John” and “Phillipians” are 100% ready to go for the contemporary service (usually a couple hours later on Sunday morning).
“John 1:1-5” (displayed above; we’re going old-school with an MP3 embed/download!) is particularly excellent; Luke & Emily bring their vocal duet style to bear on a chipper sing-a-long that is almost certainly the easiest way to remember and ponder the complex theological passage. The chorus (“The light shines in the darkness / and the darkness has not overcome it”) points squarely at the crux of the passage, while the intro/outro (“In the beginning was the Word / and the Word was with God / And the Word was God”) offer unvarnished theological complexity in a fun way. They also manage to make the cello and flute sound quirky and charming instead of somber. It’s great!
If you want a small-but-strong EP to fit into a mellow playlist, help you memorize scripture, whet your appetite for more Luke & Emily music, or scratch an itch for things near to The Welcome Wagon’s idiosyncratic approach, this is very worth your time.
Wall Sun Sun‘s Orangesis one of the most brilliant albums I have heard all year. Their unique fusion of fiercely acoustic aesthetics, complex rhythms, extremely catchy melodies, tight harmonies, and surrealist lyrics results into a fascinating, mind-bending indie-pop album.
The band is not a usual set-up. There’s an excellent tuba instead of a bass guitar. There are seven vocalists–three male and four female. The four female vocalists often sing in incredibly close harmony, sometimes even sounding like one voice. The percussion is split between two people, both of whom sound like they are standing waaaaaay at the back of the room for recording. There is no distortion on this record and very few (if any) electric guitars; most of the songs sound like they are played on a nylon-string guitar.
All of this personnel comes together into a fresh, compelling sound–sort of like the enthusiastic pop of early Bombadil meeting the dense vocals of the Polyphonic Spree in a Shins-ian acoustic setup with Vampire Weekend rhythms. Got all that?
Those complex, Vampire Weekend-style rhythms are a big element of this record; none of the tracks have a traditional four-on-the-floor approach to the drumming. The speedy rim-and-snare interplay of “You” meshes with the tropical guitar melodies and rapid-fire vocal performances to create an impressively complex song that yet sounds light and fun. That style of speedy-yet-not-invasive drumming is almost omnipresent, lending a unique vibe to the work. It even gets a turn in the spotlight: the snappy, punchy bass-and-rim percussion of “Menageries” forms the main arrangement for a great bulk of the tune. The intriguing complexity of the percussion approach lends a lot of interest to the record.
It’s a bit nerdy to focus on percussion before vocals, because this album really is about the catchy melodies and tight harmonies. The album owes a lot to doo-wop and tropicalia in its vocal approach, as the female vocalists often sing in such close harmonies that my wife wondered if the sound was a vocal effect or just incredible performing. (My wife is a vocalist. They’re that tight.) The male “lead” vocals are yelpy and fun, from the serious “Rely” to the goofy “Comedian” to the standout pop tune “Gold.” The melodies are the sort that can’t be wrenched out of my head for days: I’ve been humming “You” and “Gold” and “Menageries” and “Comedian” non-stop over the past few weeks. It’s just a great collection of songs with an indelible approach.
The songwriting itself is commendable too; there are tempo shifts, tonal changes, hard left hooks, big moments, subtle movements, and more. It’s the sort of exciting, whizbang songwriting that keeps the listener constantly on toes. The lyrics are just as fun and interesting–they’re surreal in a Bombadil sort of way, where things start off normal and slowly get weirder and weirder. “You,” “Comedian,” “Life,” and “Guessed” are all tracks that have endearing “wait, what?” moments in the lyrics.
So Oranges is the whole package: from the unique personnel to the fresh songwriting approach to the impressive vocal performances to the surreal lyrics. It even comes with a digital form of liner notes, charmingly twee press photos of the outfit all dressed in orange, and beautiful album art. There’s nothing to knock in this record: it’s simply one of the best things I’ve heard all year in all respects. If you’re a fan of indie-pop, this is an absolute must-hear. Highly recommended.
St. Even‘s Other Times You Die is a record that builds on the past successes of Steve Hefter (he who is St. Even) as a quiet indie-pop artist by expanding his palette in a wide array of ways. The expansion of his sonic bounds coincides with a more well-developed sense of the album as a unit, as he tells a distinct–if perhaps not exactly chronologically ordered–story about the joys and disappointments of relationship.
So, that sonic space. Hefter’s previous work relied heavily on acoustic instrumentation, spartan arrangements, and a lot of patience. On this record, he is not as patient–there are things zooming all over the place from the beginning to the end of the album. There are electric guitars!There are electronic bits! There’s found sound! All these things make it a very exciting record.
It is a bit of a departure from his previous work, although there are a couple tracks which strip everything out and leave just the core of his songwriting (“Opaquing,” “Not What You Think,” “Shittiness”). Those stripped-down songs sound remarkably like his previous work. So, this record is less of a change in his sound, and more of an expansion of what he was previously doing.
The expanded songwriting takes shape in many ways. There are nigh-on rock songs like the title track and opener “Piling It On”, which features crunchy guitar and sees Hefter in a bit of a power-pop attack mode. Love song “Matchmaker” has a tropical vibe, full of steel drums and Vampire Weekend style arrangements. “Every Night” is some sort of stuttery neo-funk tune. There are multiple interludes that show off his ability to create pastiches and found sound arrangements. These are all a heck of a lot of fun.
The core of the record, though, is not about his sonic explorations. The record is really about the highs and lows of a relationship from the giddy start and the amazing highs to the not so great parts (“Little Things”). There are plenty of indications that there is trouble in paradise on this record, and they are carefully and unsparingly documented (“3/18/06”). However, this is a record about trying to keep a relationship together as opposed to a document of one falling apart. This is most clearly shown in “Shittiness,” where Hefter attests to the need to keep perspective while things are going well; he needs to not take good times in a relationship for granted.
Closer “Happy Last New Year” is a true resolution: things are going well in the relationship. This allows Hefter to bust out a very-traditionally-St. Even melancholic tune about how he feels like the world is falling apart right as he feels like he’s getting himself together. Even though this is a closer that’s supposed to be a bummer, it’s mostly a reassuring song–you can have totally shitty moments in your relationship and yet still come out the other side. In that way, the record is a record about how to stay together as opposed to the many records about how to fall apart. This doesn’t mean that there’s not fights, even bad ones – but in the end all turns out well (or at least seems like it). That’s pretty rad.
This is an under-the-radar triumph of indie-pop songwriting. If you like St. Even’s previous work, there are a couple tracks that sound just like it here. But if you’re not a fan of quiet, moping indie-pop with indelible melodies, there’s a lot more going on this record which might interest you too. If you like unique, disjointed, unusual indie-pop arrangements, you’ll be into this. So there are a lot of people who should be liking this record, not the least of which being optimists. Also, realists who are trying to be optimistic. Long live St. Even. Highly recommended.
Vickers Vimy’s Atlas of Hearts is a strong, diverse album that excels based on the band’s crafty arrangement skills and excellent vocal performances.
Vickers Vimy can write compelling folk tunes in a variety of milieus. Opener “Bonfire of Dantes” is wrapped in the adornments of Spaghetti Westerns, with lazy trumpets and high-drama guitar work, while follow-up “Chicago” is only a touch less catchy and loads more mandolin-folky than Sufjan’s track of the same name.
“Mermaid of Luna Park” has some screamin sax, blaring organ, and ‘90s Goo Goo Dolls vibes in the guitar tone and vocal melodies. “Peg and Hammer” has the insistent urgency of The Rural Alberta Advantage, while “Keep Your Eyes on the Road” is a cross between Josh Ritter and Jack Johnson. They know how to write a great song in tons of different ways. It’s like an early Decemberists album that has 15 different things going on per album but it all sounds great together.
Their vision coalesces around the title track, where a clarinet duets with a violin playing a slightly dissonant line. The rest of the band hums along perfectly, giving the lead instruments and the vocals tons of space. Even though the arrangement here is stellar, it’s the vocals that win this tune. Ed Drea has a high tenor voice prone to soaring lines, and that tendency is put to great effect in this track. Elsewhere he controls his voice on the hushed, European, open-air cafe vibe of “Budapest” and even sneaks in some ominous spoken word on murder ballad “Red Moon Rising.” There’s not a bad performance in the record, as all of the vocals are compelling and clear.
Atlas of Hearts is a record of wide-ranging interests and ideas. The band pulls it all off admirably, and the vocals sell the whole work. If you’re into eclectic full-band folk like Beirut or The Decemberists, this will catch your interest quite a bit.
Opener “Sharalee” sets the tone for the whole EP, as piano keys tumbling gently over each other are met by a delicate, soaring, barely-even-feels-like-pedal-steel guitar. The fusion is deeply calming while still maintaining a sense of melodic motion. This is a particularly impressive feat because none of the lush arranging that marks his other work is present–it’s just piano and occasional distant guitar. This means that Isaak has to rely entirely on his ability to create indelible melodies and his well-tuned sense of space. In relying on those things, he succeeds admirably. “Sharalee” is a fantastic track that offers a wealth of re-listening value.
“Upstairs” is a quiet rumination, a sort of rainy-day-bedroom-pop version of neo-classical music. The mood is very well-suited to the pitter patter of rain that you can imagine just offscreen. It’s short and sweet and it works. In contrast, “Wind” shows off some of his compositional complexity. Isaak layers multiple piano lines together in a somewhat polyrhythmic way to create an overlapping tension that he gracefully resolves by the end of the piece.
Closer “More” is a tune that most resembles a Teen Daze song in its melodic approach. There’s a subtle tension between major and minor that is common in Jamison’s electronic work. It’s also the song that most resembles a mid-century minimalist piece, as Isaak repeats an elegant phrase many times with subtle variations in keying and pedal steel performance. It is not one of the most relaxing pieces, but it is one of the most interesting for someone who is interested in mid-century minimalism.
Ultimately, EP1 one is a welcome entrée into the world of neo-classical music from Jamison Isaak. I look forward to hearing more of his piano work, perhaps with even more orchestration, in the future. This EP is lovely, and makes me excited to see where he goes as a composer, as well as a creator of electronic music. Highly recommended.
Each of the first four tracks on the 11-song record have shiver-inducing moments where the gear shifts and Ike just starts going for it. Big moments aren’t unusual singer/songwriter work (see: Adele, Damien Rice, Glen Hansard, etc.), but the way that Ike does big moments is. “Ever Stay” is a moody, ruminating track full of swooping cello and left-hand punch that gets kicked up a gear via an instrumental bridge where percussion and wordless, occasionally ululating vocals throw the song into overdrive. Ike’s vocals there and in the final chorus are strong.
“By the Fire” starts off as a quiet singer/songwriter ballad which is again amped up by percussion, left-hand groove, and Ike’s roaring vocals. But that doesn’t hold a candle to the wild, stomping, furious 1:37 of “You Betta,” which is one of the most punchy, unexpected, excited bits of un-genre-able music I’ve heard in a while. The gospel choir involved here is ace. “Last Time” is a kiss-off song that fans of Adele and/or fans of a big pop ballad crescendo will love.
Those four songs set the tone for the rest of the record, which mixes in some of those vibes amid a collection of strong piano-pop/singer-songwriter work. “Give a Little” is a description of an icy relationship set to a Parisian cafe tune, complete with accordion; “I Don’t Know Anything” is a solid, straight-down-the-middle singer/songwriter tune. “Walk” is a moving song sonically and lyrically, featuring a reappearance of the gospel choir in a more traditional role. If you like your singer/songwriters with some groove and punch, Joy Ike’s Bigger than Your Box will give you a lot to chew on.
*Disclosure: I supported the Kickstarter for this record.
Adam Stafford‘s Fire Behind the Curtain is a highly eclectic instrumental work, combining elements of mid-century minimalist melodic patterning, contemporary ambient work, soundtrack scoring, and whimsy into one kaleidoscopic neo-classical work. I like all of those elements individually, so it’s no shock that I really like this album as a unit.
I mention a kaleidoscope because while Stafford does have a few pieces that show his whole composing vision (standouts “An Abacus Designed to Calculate Infinity,” “The Witch Hunt”), the majority of the works here show off one aspect of his ideas each. The delicate-yet-frenetic, patterned melodies and counter-melodies of “Zero Disruption” point to his affinity for mid-century minimalism. “Sails Cutting Through an Autumn Night” is as narrative and soundtrack-oriented as you would expect from the title. “Holographic Tulsa Mezzanine” is an sort-of ambient/chillwave/undefinable track built off churning, chopped synths.
There are moments where his ideas crash into each other: the amazing “Penshaw Monument” is a dense, minimalist, nearly-11-minute composition created almost entirely of beatboxing, singing, and yelling. The tone of the song is not as whimsical as the whistling over the thickly layered composition of “An Abacus Designed to Calculate Infinity”, but conceptually the song is highly whimsical (“What if I had 11 minutes of beatboxing?”). 10-minute closer “I Dreamed I Was a Murderer” fuses a highly ambient, textural opening with long woodwind notes for an experimental neo-classical experience. (If you’re into Michael Gordon’s work, you’ll be into this piece.)
Fire Behind the Curtain is its strength. This album has ideas just exploding from everywhere. Fans of adventurous, gleefully genre-mashing instrumental music will find much to love in this wild experience.
If you stick around in the music reviewing game long enough, you get to see whole long swaths of people’s careers. I’ve been covering TJ Foster’s work with Accents and then Darling Valley since 2012, and Ryan Hutchens’ work as Cancellieri since 2014. Both of the songwriters have new releases out under their own names. Both of the albums are highly retrospective releases, giving a glimpse into what was happening personally over the last few years that I’ve known them professionally.
TJ Foster‘s First Person, Volume Onecontains tracks like “An Ode to My Twenties” (self-explanatory) and “The Basement,” which details his changing relationship throughout his life to a sanctum of sorts. Both of these songs touch on his parents’ divorce, which is one of many personal events that he’s sorting out in this record.
Given that content, the tone of the record is very sad: there’s a romantic nobility in facing sadness with dignity, and Foster is trying to walk that path. Standout opener “I Don’t Know” sets the tone that pervades almost every track, as Foster sets gloriously-executed multi-tracked vocal harmony over a solemn fingerpicked guitar melody. The song closes with as good a thesis statement as you can get for a sort-through-the-past album: “Am I a sucker for sadness, or is it one for me? / Am I losing my grip on some reality? / I don’t know / I don’t know.” It’s an excellent song.
Elsewhere “Brokenfine” adds solid piano, allowing for even more gravitas. “An Ode to My Twenties” is an upbeat major-key folk tune complete with harmonica–it’s one of the few moments of sunshine sonically, even if the lyrics are still (mostly) in line with the rest of the record. “What If” is a slightly dreamy take on folk, while “57” is a quiet tune built off another lovely finger-picking-and-vocals core. First Person, Volume One is a specific, personal record that could hit someone doing a re-evaluation of their 20s square in the numbers.
Ryan Hutchens‘ The Last Ten Yearsis retrospective in several ways; the record has a lyrical cast looking back on the last decade, while also re-recording some tunes previously released as Cancellieri. For someone who’s been following his work for a while, it’s nice to hear some songs that are like old friends (“Fortunate Peace” in particular).
The sonic vibe is not overtly sad–opener “Green My Eyes” has a gently adventurous arrangement that sounds like a Freelance Whales track, what with the complex patterning of banjo and guitar melodies laid against subtle drone-like element (in this case piano and distant guitar chords). It’s a warm, inviting track, welcoming you into the record. Hutchens loves calm, peaceful arrangements, and even this complex one has an overall feeling of relaxation.
Right after that track comes the title track of the record, which sets a tone lyrically–there’s a sense of loss and even bitterness in these tracks. The loss is especially raw in “The Trouble With You”. There’s some unrequited love spread throughout the record, some re-evaluation of a working-musician’s career trajectory (“The Landing”), and some consideration of loneliness and death (“Poor Old Man,” “The Landing” again).
But even “The Landing,” the lyrical core of the very sad lyrical set, is a major key folk shuffle with lazy pedal steel evoking Hawaiian vibes. If you’re the sort that listens to the vibe instead of the lyrics, this record will have a completely different feel for you than if you’re one who scrutinizes the words. Yet the dichotomy isn’t as terribly jarring as it sounds on paper, because Hutchens’ voice contains all manner of emotions throughout the tunes–his vocal performances hold the two pieces of the record together. If you’re into peaceful singer/songwriter records with strong arrangements and/or difficult lyrics, you’ll be into The Last Ten Years.
Marshall McLuhan is known for saying “The medium is the message,” but one of his lesser-known statements is that the content of any new medium is a remediation of the old medium. He was working at the time when television was emerging as a new medium, and so he argued that the content of television was largely content from radio (which, if you look at the early days of television, was true). We’re now firmly ensconced in the popular maturation of the digital medium, and so it would follow that the content of the digital medium is a remediation of the television that came before it. (Hello, YouTube.)
However, as a medium develops, creators become more familiar with and comfortable with the things that a medium can do. These creators then start to make things unique to the medium. (These “unique to the medium” things become the stuff remediated when the next media comes around.)
Darlingside‘s Extralifeis a remediation of the folk tradition in a digital milieu, with the content of “digital music” being a reframing and reshaping of the old content (folk music). Darlingside isn’t the first to combine folk and electronics (folktronica is a whole genre unto itself). However, society has advanced through time, and digital-influenced folk has matured to a point where Darlingside’s work feels less like a quirky outlier or early-adopter noodling and more like an accurate descriptor of the present moment. Add in lyrics that span the distance from pastoral reminiscent to fears about the end of time, and you’ve got something that nails the ethos of our era just about as well as OK Computer nailed its time.
The first thing to note here is not the digital work, but the thick, multi-tracked vocals that evoke Fleet Foxes, The Oh Hellos, or the Collection in approach. These feel spot-on; they lend a we’re-all-in-this-together vibe to the tracks. The vocal melodies are solid throughout, from the wide-eyed “Extralife” to the soaring “Singularity” to the Paul Simon-esque verses of “Futures.” You can sing along to this record, just like you can with any good folk record.
The arrangements surrounding those vocals explore a specific range of territory: these tracks are often minor-key, but not grim; filled with lush atmospheres, but not necessarily “warm” in the way of The Low Anthem. Instead, there’s a density to the arrangement of each of the tracks that gives them gravitas without robbing them of human connection. “Hold Your Head Up High” displays this tension perfectly; there’s some Bon Iver-level arch iciness filled in/contrasted with mournful trumpet and accordion. There’s a bit of an autotune edge on the vocals, again evoking Bon Iver–but the lyrics are optimistic and the vocal melodies tend to follow (in a way).
This tension between minor and major, between optimistic and sad, is extended in the digital aspects of the record. Opener “Extralife” opens with what sounds like sharpened, manipulated violins, then gives way to a patient arpeggiator as the basis of the track. What sounds like accordion (maybe it’s a synth?) comes in over it, smoothing out the rhythms of the arpeggiator. An acoustic guitar eases its way in on top, with the lyrics weaving video game concepts and metaphors through all that. The digital is part of everything, not a gimmick or a cheat code, but a part of how they write.
Nowhere is this more prevalent than in standout “Eschaton,” which also starts out with a perky arpeggiator and delightfully droning counterpoint. But from that beginning, the song expands into a punchy, full-throated indie-rock track, complete with Paul Simon-esque lyrics like “They’re making martyrs out of tennis stars / did you think they were ours?” The digital (the arpeggiator goes slightly bonkers), the acoustic (that cello line is wonderful), and the vocal all blend together beautifully.
It’s not all the digital future: “Old Friend” includes flutes in a pastoral setting, “Lindisfarne” is as close as they get to a Fleet Foxes song, and “The Rabbit and the Pointed Gun” feels like a latter-day Iron and Wine idea. But these are all placed in the context of album that opens with “Extralife” and closes with the enthusiastic “Best of the Best Times,” which sounds like a cross between ELO (those futurists) and a folk vocal performance with failing machine sounds thrown in. It is a major key song about sadness, which sets it apart from the record in some regards; however, the sonic threads that Darlingside cultivates through the rest of the record all come to bear here, creating a thoroughly satisfying conclusion to the record.
This is a big record that aims high–they shoot for a lot, and they hit most of it. Those big ambitions pay off. This is a folk record that looks backwards and forwards, creating an excellent record that sounds very contemporary. Yet it’s contemporary in the way that can stand–it’s more a stake in the ground than a trend-following ephemeral piece. This is fantastic work. Highly recommended.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.