The early 2000s were a time of joy and splendor for independent music: people were putting Death Cab in TV shows! Modest Mouse was getting signed! Blogs were zooming bands to stardom in mere days! In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was slowly rumbling its way to cult stardom! Independent music culture, which had existed since the late ’70s, finally had some above-the-radar recognition. In this crucible appeared bands that were obvious pop successes, but also some band’s bands: shadowy, insider-baseball outfits that were revered and somehow kept secret from/didn’t resonate with the general populace. Jeff Mangum’s output is the example par excellence, but unassuming lo-fi bands like The Microphones and The Shivers also fell into that category. It is a vinyl re-release of The Shivers’ Charades I am here to praise today (even though I almost never cover re-releases).
If you haven’t heard of The Shivers and their cult classic Charades, don’t worry: until a 10-year anniversary vinyl was brought to my attention, I didn’t know about Keith Zarriello and co.’s gritty, lo-fi indie-pop. Zarriello fits in with The Microphones and other early ’00s bands that were trying (and largely succeeded) to make indie-pop into a dignified art form with aesthetic diversity and abilities. It was purposefully serious music, but it could be beautiful (and even a little funny, too). Charades is all of that: serious, diverse, artistic, beautiful, and even a bit humorous. It succeeds as a gorgeous album without sounding like it’s trying too hard (although we now know that certain level of disaffected attitude takes considerable effort).
“Beauty” is the highlight here: a gently strummed electric guitar, tape hiss, and a plunky bass guitar open the track and set the mood. Zarriello’s voice warbles confidently (no, I mean that) above the quiet backdrop, sounding every bit a bedroom track. But the lyrics open up from the concerns of one man’s head and encompass a general statement on love and life. It’s a statement that many artists try to make, and it’s not entirely clear why this one works so poignantly. Perhaps it’s the distinct combination of the elements. Perhaps it’s the wonderful chorus, sung by a multi-tracked vocal chorus. Maybe it’s none of those things. But it’s a gorgeous, memorable track that can’t be ignored. It has largely propelled Charades ongoing life.
But there are other songs going for it as well: “Sunshine” has a wistful lullaby feel about it. “The Shivers” and “Charades” are moody pieces that seek that artistic aesthetic. “I Could Care Less” and “L.I.E.” are a little more immediate in their take on things: the former by being loud and brash, the latter by tuning down the tape hiss and focusing right on the vocals and gentle guitars.
Charades gave me time machine joy: the passion and dreary excitement of the early ’00s are historical relics now, but Charades lets you relive what it was like to hear bands push those boundaries. The excitement of discovering songs in the way they would have been discovered a decade ago is an exquisite and rare joy. You get to have some nostalgia and get to hear some incredible new songs. I can’t think of much more to ask for in a re-release.
There’s a striking immediacy to much punk music that endears me to it. Even more that rock, punk music feels connected to the life of the moment. No hook should be delayed, no element should be understated, nuance should be minimized; who knows how long that PA will hold up? If the show will get shut down? If the world ends? Nope, play fast and loud and do it all right now. Quiet Stories‘ Matt Moran cut his teeth in the short-lived punk/rock band The Typist, so he knows the world of sonic immediacy. Even though he’s playing acoustic folk/country right now, he’s maintained that brash, devil-may-care attitude in his melodies and arrangements. Per Aspera Ad Astra is a passionate album that feels both energetic and comforting.
The history of musicians leaving punk for acoustic music is long, but it’s one of punk’s lesser-known defects that was most successful as an acoustic performer. Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba was in punk/emo band Further Seems Forever in the early ’00s before starting DC. Since DC is pretty much sad songs sung to punk strumming on an acoustic guitar, it’s not surprising the first time you hear that fact. Moran has more than a little bit of the brash vocal stylings and energetic arrangements of Carrabba. “1987” and “Seven Years” particularly show off this vibe: the former sees Moran singing loudly and hammering a piano from the outset of the song, while the full band arrangement of the latter includes full-keyboard slides, hollered punk vocals, iconic punk whoas, and punchy drums. This may be a folk/country album, but it’s not Bon Iver by any stretch of the imagination.
“When It’s Over” starts with full arrangement and vocals from the beginning, a no-nonsense approach to getting into a song. It’s a bit more of a melancholy track, per its title. Even though it jumps in with both feet, it still shows a reflective musical and lyrical side. Fingerpicked ballad “This is 25″ will be the high point for fans of quiet/sad tunes–it’s a really strong track that shows Moran could play ball with the best of the solo singer/songwriters if he so chose. But when you can holler with the best of them and play loud songs like closer “American Summer,” why would you play only quiet ones? Moran is comfortable with the mix of sounds, as none of the songs here sound out of place to my ear. It’s just a fun album to listen to.
That diversity of sound turns Per Aspera from a collection of tunes into a true album. There are many facets to the album, even though the predominant sound is a brash, punk-inspired folk/country idiom. Moran knows his way around a guitar, and that shows throughout. If you want some folk/country with energy, passion, and strong songwriting, check out Quiet Stories.
I review a lot of music. Like any person who does a particular action thousands of times, I’ve come up with better and more refined ways of accomplishing this task. For me it means listening while doing certain types of other actions, keeping track of any stray thought whatsoever I have while listening, and so on. But sometimes an album comes along that blows up my method. Post-war by Last Builders of Empire forces me to encounter it on the creator’s terms instead of my own, which results in a really satisfying listener experience and (as you’re about to see) a relatively difficult writer experience.
My natural reaction to post-rock is to describe the quality of the sounds and point out the defining characteristic of those sounds. Post-War resists that. The post-rock here is largely dark, heavy, and emotional; it aims for the widescreen angles. The band’s scenes are framed by delicate guitar work; they often build from sweet, subtle beginnings to heavy, dissonant, distorted conclusions. That all sounds like standard post-rock fare, right? That’s because the individual aspects of the sound aren’t really the point of the album (as opposed to, say, an Adebisi Shank album, where they are 100% the reason to listen). The care and attention that Last Builders of Empire invest in the details of the songwriting and wordless storytelling are what make this an engaging, enveloping listen.
The band wrote this work with a specific arc in mind; this isn’t a haphazard collection of songs without context. Set up in a tripartite “Inferno,” “Purgatorio,” “Paradiso” format, this album seeks to be a whole unit. (This is why it is so difficult to talk about its individual songs or even the individual sounds.) Yes, this is a fully-realized achievement, an album that has the plodding dissonance of “Huida Hacia El Sol” as an equally important part of the album as the urgent, yearning “Quiet Like a Knife.”
Closer “For Those Who Have Faith” brings both of those leanings together, pairing a yearning guitar line that finally edges its way over into a major key with a thumping, low-slung rhythm section. The middle section represents a style closer to the soaring, upbeat Lights and Motion style of post-rock than the heavy, brutal Godspeed You! Black Emperor style. It’s still very clearly Last Builders of Empire, but they’re able to transform their songwriting accordingly to fit their overall arc. By the end they’ve come back around to their home base of dark, heavy, dissonant, and emotional–which presents an interesting conclusion to the album. Perhaps “Paradiso” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be–returning home from war is never easy.
Post-war by Last Builders of Empire is not the sort of album you can digest in one song or even one sitting of the whole record. It’s an experience that you have simmer in and immerse yourself in. Last Builders of Empire have taken the time to craft their art in deep and thought-provoking ways, which I always appreciate. If you’re into post-rock, Last Builders of Empire should be on your to-hear list.
I’m a big fan of two mid-era Jimmy Eat World records, Futures and Chase This Light, that perfectly captured the blend of riffs, rhythmic variety, clever vocal melodies, and mood diversity that I’m looking for in rock. The Slang have a ton of sonic similarities with Jimmy Eat World, which makes me a huge fan of their self-titled EP. Opener “Far from Over” has a vaguely disco opening before dropping into a guitar-laden groove that manages to keep energy going through a midtempo tune (an admirable feat).
Lead single “Feels Like Work” nails the quiet/loud dichotomy in creating a solid radio-rock tune. It feels mature, powerful, and not kitschy–especially when the lead guitar lines come in. The vocals take the lead in “One Step at a Time,” which makes it feel even more like a Jimmy Eat World song. Throughout the EP, there are strong riffs and a great sense of control that keeps this from turning into pedestrian rock. The Slang has an x factor that’s hard to quantify in rock, but it’s very clearly there. If you like thoughtful rock’n’roll that doesn’t turn into sterilized thought experiments, The Slang will scratch your itch. It’s melodic comfort food for me. I look forward to hearing much more from The Slang.
Brandon Cunningham‘s Give Out is the sort of album I listen to when I’m alone; sometimes when driving a long stretch of road, sometimes when hanging out in my room. The slow-churning quartet of alt-country tunes has a big, spacious feel that fits a wide-open road; it also has a sort of claustrophobia that hangs over its head, as if someone was trying to expand a room but finds itself banging up against the walls.
There’s some Jason Molina sounds trapped in the wrenching, tension-filled “Doubt,” as the song grows from a tiny spark to a roaring, torrential guitar wall, complete with thrashing cymbals. The reverb, the heavy emphasis on distant sounds, and the sense of weight all mark the track as a soon-beloved of Songs: Ohia listeners. “Lines in the Sand” lets a little light in the cracks by playing acoustic guitar instead of electric, but there’s still a heaviness to the track in the political / religious subject matter. “Bush Wives” is downright chipper in comparison, sounding kind of like a Keane song–which is still pretty thick sonically. “Baby” is a forlorn alt-country love song in the style of Mojave 3, which appeals to my “injured romantic” sensibilities.
Give Out is a diverse foursome of songs that show Cunningham’s ability to corral a small amount of instruments into very specific moods. He can turn it up into a mournful wall of sound or keep it quiet with pensive acoustic tunes. Whichever way he goes, he brings a passion to the songs that allows them to feel real and physical; these songs feel like they grab me by the shoulders and demand I listen. Cunningham should be a name you know.
I’ve been repping The Parmesans as hard as I can for as long as I’ve known about their music, as their bluegrassy/folk-poppy/traditional string band maelstrom is endlessly fun. Their new album Flat Baroque continues their streak (now three albums and two EPs long) of fun, clever, interesting, smile-inducing releases.
They lean heavily on guitar, mandolin, stand-up bass and three-voice harmonies, and it works perfectly. The Parmesans have a habit of recording their favorite songs multiple times (“Delirious Dream,” “JuJaJe” and “See For Yourself” reprise this time), and that gives their albums a feel of a backporch concert that just keeps rolling on. They didn’t record “Walls for the Wind” this time, but hey, they might go for a fourth round on the next album. It’s that sort of off-the-cuff attitude to track listing that’s infused in the tracks themselves. The Parms are clearly having fun, and that is hard to miss as a listener.
They’re developing a signature melodic and rhythmic style in the guitar, which is really cool. It’s fun to hear sounds develop over a long period of time. They’ve also figured out what type of song they’re really good at; consequently, there are no bad tracks on Flat Baroque. “Call Me When You’re There” and “Bad Idea” stand out among the new tracks, but all of them are worth repeating multiple times. They tracked this one live, as they have all their other albums; the difference is that they did so at Tiny Telephone in San Francisco. They’re moving up in the world! If you’re into fun, unique takes on traditional string music, then Flat Baroque is most definitely for you.
They’re on tour right now; they’re passing through Raleigh (Fuquay-Varina!) on Sunday. I’ll be there, hoping for “Walls for the Wind” and “Bad Idea.”
Lindsey Saunders‘ four-song EPMiles Before Sleep is a solo acoustic guitar effort that showcases her impressive technical and melodic skill. Saunders’ modus operandi in these tunes is to set up a melodic environment not unlike that of a solo piano piece: an introductory section to establish mood, then development of themes, then variations on those themes–all while managing the crescendo/descrescendo flow of the piece. (It was originally meant to accompany a dance piece by Texture Ballet.)
This wouldn’t work if Saunders weren’t so impressive at fretwork: the flowing opener “Task” leads the listener on a relaxing journey full of melody ideas, while “Decision” amps up the speed of the work and pulls off some complex, syncopated lead lines. “Questioning” opens with the feel of the former but graduates to the latter, featuring some of her most aggressive, acrobatic-sounding fretwork. “Acceptance” returns to the lullaby-esque feel of “Task,” closing the EP on a pensive, beautiful note. I’m only rarely sent acoustic solo guitar work, but so far I’ve enjoyed what I’ve heard. Perhaps only those with intense chops even consider pulling it off. Lindsey Saunders has both the technical skill and the melodic songwriting chops to write impressive and engaging solo guitar tunes, which is rare. The EP drops November 4.
Tulsa’s finest totally unclassifiable wunderkinds Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey are back for their 26th album, Worker. Taking a break from longform work after several years of work on The Race Riot Suite, JFJO are delving into their indie-rock and hip-hop influences. The ever-evolving, piano-led trio spends the bulk of Worker writing short songs full of grinding noises, synth blasts, abrupt shifts, and funky breakdowns.
“Appropriation Song” seems to be self-aware in its pilfering of noises, melodies and rhythms from other genres. “Better Living Through Competitive Spirituality” uses old-school analog synths to create one of the coolest tracks I’ve heard in a long time. It’s got jazzy influences, but it’s essentially a post-rock song. Furthermore, it could be the backing track to some really impressive alt hip-hop; it would be incredible if they got some rappers to create some remixes on this track in particular. “Bounce” could also work brilliantly for a hip-hop remix, as it already has the rhythmic tensions present in great hip-hop.
JFJO is a fascinating band: 20 years into their run, they’re putting out work that’s just as challenging (if not more) than their early or mid-period work. They may not have much of the “jazz” from their name left in their sound, but they do have one trait of great jazz musicians: they’re getting better with age. Worker is a challenging, engaging, rewarding listen that will please fans of experimental, adventurous post-rock. The album drops tomorrow, October 14.
The Widest Smiling Faces‘ Sin Waves is also difficult to describe, but in a completely different way from JFJO. Sin Waves is a 33-track album of dreamy, woozy, reverb-heavy, gentle tracks. Only 6 of them break one minute, though; TWSF prefers to cast off tiny, impressionistic swatches of sound that lean heavily on meandering solo fingerpicked electric guitar. Especially in the back half of the album, listening to Sin Waves is more like wandering through a lovely art gallery that plays sounds than listening to songs.
There are six longer pieces that approximate the standard definition of song. In contrast to the largely instrumental sound swatches, the longer pieces feature Aviv Cohn’s mumbling, whispering, feathery voice. “Rip Me in Half” pairs guitar and voice with some distant, muffled drums to pleasing effect; “Oil Pastel” has a disarmingly straightforward guitar lead before it gets layered upon with more guitars and voice. Cohn is fully capable of writing longform; he just prefers to do elsewise.
Sin Waves is an album in the truest sense of the word: it’s a collection of things that are meant to be heard together. I don’t see a lot of point in listening to this work outside its whole: the entirety of the work is needed for the experience to be fully appreciated. If you’ve got a half-hour that you want to spend in dreamy, ethereal mode, this album should be in your life.
Music for Abandoned Podcast by Kasey Keller Big Band shares the genre-demolishing tendencies of JFJO and the short runtimes of TWSF, making for a surrealistic, madcap 10 tracks in 10 minutes. Keller likes to group strummed instruments (ukulele, nylon-string guitar) with gritty synths, beats, and droll spoken/sung vocals, as in the eerie “Wardenclyffe” and bizarre synth-pop of “Usain Bolt.” Opening track “RIC” is almost two minutes of melodic synth-pop jams, showing a rare, impressive conventional turn from KKBB.
Sometimes elements of his sound are dropped out: “Mosaic History” is a straight synth-pop jam without strings, “Glottal Stop” removes the vocals for 30 seconds of the most intriguing instrumental hip-hop I’ve heard in a while, and “New Knees” is a lo-fi acoustic-and-voice moment. But overall, this is an experimental release that plumbs the depths of acoustic/electronic interaction by juxtaposing them in gritty, raw, unusual ways. If you’re into experimental music, jump on this.
Falcon Arrow‘s Tower is a soaring, powerful, instrumental, drum-and-bass post-rock duo that ranks as one of the best of the year. Now don’t get tricked into thinking this is drone or anything. This album is one of the most acrobatic post-rock albums I’ve heard in a long, long time. Bassist Matt Reints modulates his bass playing several octaves out of normal bass range, making tunes that have heavy, grooving bass foundations and incredible treble-end melodies. It’s astonishing what Reints can wring out of one four-string bass. (The press photo has him playing a four-string. For real. As a bassist, I can’t even believe that this is possible with essentially the same instrument I have.)
Reints is not just a fantastic technician armed with modulating pedals and loopers; he’s a brilliant melodist. And since he’s a bass player, he knows how to use the low-end not just to support the treble, but to interlock with it to create sums bigger than the parts. Finally, since he’s a bass player, there aren’t chords anywhere on this album: everything is done through cascading single-note runs and super-sludgy single note crushers for some grounding. In short, Matt Reints has taken on the job of being the guitarist and the bassist in one of the more complex post-rock bands I’ve ever heard. I have no idea how he remembers everything. I really don’t. Also Dav Kemp plays drums. (Sorry Dav. Bassist geeking out over here.)
You can pick any of the 11 songs on this roughly 40-minute album and have your mind blown, but my two favorites are “Aldebaran Serpent” and “Cantina Empire,” which form the 13-minute heart of the record. (They’re really into sci-fi; JUST ONE MORE THING TO LOVE.) “Aldebaran Serpent” starts off with some crushing, distorted bass, punchy snare hits, and some syncopated bass drum patterns. After inoculating you into the groove, Reints starts tossing off heavily-reverbed runs of high treble notes, creating a gorgeously full sound. Then he modulates up another octave and starts playing even faster, essentially turning his bass into a synthesizer. If your mind’s not blown, I don’t know what will do that for you. “Cantina Empire” leans more heavily on Reints’ traditional instrumental chops, using a swift, clean bass guitar line as the foundation. Kemp supports neatly with some punctuated, staccato drumming. They eventually do drop in a distorted low-end and a reverb-heavy top line; the riff at 1:30 is one of my favorite on the record, especially when put in the full context of the song. It’s an impressive song.
Tower is nothing short of astonishing. It’s gorgeous and impressive on its own melodic merits, but it’s even more mindblowing that two people (and only two people) composed all of this and perform it live. If you’re into post-rock of any variety, you will be blown away by Falcon Arrow. They’re just absolutely incredible.
Dylan Gilbert is a man of many talents. He’s been tirelessly releasing music since 2005, reinventing himself at every turn. Currently he fronts the manic prog/punk/surf outfit Hectorina and abruptly drops impressive acoustic-based solo albums. His latest offering of the latter is Shaken, an 8-song set that relies heavily on his ability of his voice to sound wildly outraged and outrageously wild.
With the exception of the gentle closer, this is an exercise in shout-folk from beginning to end. The ominous title track opens the lot, but he quickly moves away from trying to sound scary and embraces the persona of a person outraged at his misfortune. You can read this just from the titles of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” “Another Beast Washes Ashore” and “This Woman’s Gonna Put Me in the Ground.” His voice and powerfully strummed guitar (those poor guitar strings) come together to create compelling tunes that aren’t exactly Andrew Jackson Jihad, but something pretty near it. Sean Bonnette of AJJ has a nasally voice that he pairs excellently with frantic guitar strum; Gilbert has a very traditionally attractive voice that he just thrashes against the wall of life’s troubles like a dusty rug. Both are very impressive, it should be noted.
Gilbert does two covers here: the traditional “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” and “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me.” The former takes a song many people know and pours all the mourning that’s actually there in the lyrics into the vocal performance. The latter tries to infuse the weary misery of the track (again) that’s already there in the lyrics. These are pretty much required listening; the source material for both are some of my favorite tunes of all time, so it’s impressive that Gilbert can take both and breathe fresh life into them. Gilbert’s an astonishingly talented songwriter and performer, and you’d be remiss to not know of his work. Shaken should be your introduction if you’re unfamiliar.
Drift Wood Miracle impressed me from the word go, and every interaction I’ve had with them or their music since then has only grown that admiration. The Between Three & Four EP takes their disparate ideas (punk, artsy emo, acoustic singer/songwriter) and melds them into a cohesive experience that ranks with some of the best artistic rock music being made today.
“41 (Blue)” starts off with morose vocals over dreamy guitars (emo revival!) before seguing into a snappy acoustic singer/songwriter section; it shifts into an arty, woozy, vaguely psychedelic coda, then closes with traditional classical piano. If you’re scratching your head, no shame there. It’s only held together by force of Drift Wood Miracle’s collective will. The band then smashcuts into the raging punk/emo track “Typical,” complete with their quickly-becoming-signature sliding guitar riff style. The type of guitar work here makes me immediately think of verse/chorus/verse style of Brand New and Taking Back Sunday, but they subvert those markers of familiarity by not complying with that standard songwriting style. Instead, they throw riff after riff, never returning to any of them. You can make three or four songs out of the ideas in “Typical,” especially if you include the pensive guitar ballad at the end. If you’re not impressed at this point, this type of music probably isn’t for you.
In the rest of the all-too-short EP (12 minutes?!), we get a spoken-word French section, a squalling instrumental emo breakdown, group vocals over an acoustic guitar in a haunting melody, the drummer singing a song he wrote (!), more piano, complicated drum rhythms, and a towering post-hardcore wall of guitars. It’s a tour-de-force collage of sounds and ideas that all come together in a consistent mood. Drift Wood Miracle has come into its own here, asserting their innovative artistic vision with impressive maturity and clarity. Between Three & Four is a dizzying, astonishing performance that will make you want to play it over and over.
Midway Fair‘s 2011 offering The Distance of the Moon at Daybreak leaned heavily on traditional English folk rhythms and melodies, throwing in some Springsteen-esque chug to cap it off. On their latest EP Most Distant Star, the band has grown into its sound quite a bit: the influences are still there, but they’re much tighter wound around each other. The result is a sharp four-song outing that gives me a feel for what Midway Fair is trying to accomplish as a band.
The opener/title track starts off with a strong piano riff and brash male/female vocals. By the middle of the first verse, they’ve introduced galloping drums to speedily pace the tune. They build the song throughout to a great, pounding high-point at about two minutes in, showing off their instrumental chops (those drum fills!), songwriting ability, and style. It’s a great song, totally appropriate to be the title track. The quartet keeps that energy and passion going through the rest of the EP, not letting any track drag. “Gone to California” features folk-style storytelling lyrics on top of a jaunty backdrop. “Ones and Zeros” incorporates some ’50s pop influences, while “Be What You Like” loops in some light soul and funk elements. It’s fun to see a band that’s comfortable with itself start to push the boundaries of its sound.
Midway Fair’s Most Distant Star may have started out as a folk EP, but by the end it morphed into a quick sampler of American pop music. Their tight instrumental interplay results in a light mood throughout: none of these tunes sound forced or heavy. If you’re looking for a fun pick-me-up today, look to Most Distant Star.
Eoin Glackin also sounds like an amped up version of himself on his new EP Pretty Girl. While the title track is a smooth adult alternative cut in the vein of David Grey, the other three tracks are louder, faster, and fuller than Glackin has experimented with in the past. “Morning Take Us Easy” turns rumbling toms into a punk-inspired, push-tempo pattern in the chorus; the bass, guitar, and speedy vocal patterns follow suit, making this somewhat like a Frank Turner song or a Ryan Adams song on speed. There’s still harmonica and piano in there for sure, but this ain’t your usual laidback singer/songwriter fare.
“Ride It Out” expands the sound even wider, pulling in some widescreen soundscapes reminiscent of U2. Glackin gets a tenor howl going on against a reverbed guitar riff–I can totally see him throwing his head back and going full Bono on it. He fills out the EP with a punchy alternate version of “Rain Finally Came” from his previous album, using the drums and bass to once again help create the energetic vibe of the tune.
Sometimes an artist loses all their charm when they “go electric,” but Glackin is able to transfer his appealing aspects to the new situation and incorporate new tricks. His vocals are perhaps even more suited to the electric style than the troubadour folk he was previously doing. Pretty Girl is a fun, exciting EP that shows a new direction for Glackin that could pay off in spades.
The deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse and more have inspired the myth that 27 is the age past which no musical youth icon can live. M. Lockwood Porter, also aged 27 but definitely alive, thoughtfully grabbed the number for the title of his sophomore alt-country/country-rock/just plain rock album. His debut Judah’s Gone focused on the past (just look at that title); 27 is a coming-of-age rumination that turns his gaze from youthful aches to the troubles of living in the adult world.
27 does not contain fluffy or stereotypical lyrics: while there are a couple jilted-lover tunes, they fit into a larger paradigm of the difficult questions Porter is asking about life. Thoughts about mortality (“Chris Bell,” about another lost 27-year-old musician), the possibility of not achieving dreams (“Restless”), religion (“Couer D’Alene”), and leaving behind a legacy (“Mountains”) paint a picture of a person standing at the edge of adulthood and grappling with what he’s found so far. I may not agree with every conclusion, but I’m deeply glad that the sentiments are expressed with enough depth and clarity that I can actually agree or disagree with them. That’s a pretty rare accomplishment in the rock world.
The album’s centerpiece is the ballad “Mountains,” which pulls all of these thoughts about life together. It starts with tom hits that sound like a heartbeat before Porter wearily sings, “When I was young my father said / that faith could move a mountain / now there’s mountains as far as I can see.” Striking piano, tasteful percussion, and an earnest guitar line fill out the raw, earnest tune. I wish I could write out all the lyrics for you, but Porter distills it all into one sweeping statement to close the tune: “And as I stare across the vast expanse / I can hear my father shouting / but mountains are all that I can see.”
Porter serves up these musings in expertly crafted alt-country/country-rock tunes. Porter’s been in a bunch of bands of various genres over the past dozen years, and he’s learned things from all of them. Opener “I Know You’re Going to Leave Me” crescendoes to a pounding, ragged, desperate, shiver-inducing rock ending; he follows it up with “Chris Bell,” which is about as perfect an alt-country song as Gram Parsons could hope to hear. “You Only Talk About Your Band” is a rollicking, impassioned ’50s rock’n’roll tune that sounds like it fell out of a time machine somewhere, while Bruce Springsteen would approve of the insistent piano and urgent vocals in “Restless.” “Secrets” sounds like a San Francisco indie-pop mosey, an influence holdover from his time in The 21st Century. “Couer D’Alene” is a delicate acoustic-and-voice tune to close out the record. All of these songs are impressive in their own right, and yet none feel out of place on the record.
Porter keeps these disparate sounds and ideas held together through a consistent vocal presence on the record. No matter what genre Porter writes, he works to make his voice inhabit the song. There are no bad vehicles here: Porter sounds completely at home in each of these tunes. Instead of sounding pristine, the opposite is true: by feeling comfortable throughout, he’s able to allow his voice some fluctuations and character without needing to edit it out. It gives the whole album a careworn, comfortable feel, similar to a Justin Townes Earle song or Josh Ritter’s The Beast In Its Tracks.
27 has the sort of musical and lyrical depth that causes me to come up with more things to say than I have space for. (Two things that got cut: 1. comparing the lyrics of “Mountains” with my favorite Ryan Adams track “Rock and Roll,” which you should do on your own time; 2. The production job is excellent.) Personally Porter is in transition, but lyrically Porter is hitting his stride to be able to describe the struggles so compellingly. Musically he’s creating work that shines as a whole and as individual tracks, which shows a rare maturity. You need to hear this one.
Fri, 10/10 – San Francisco, CA @ Brick and Mortar w/ Victor Krummenacher
Fri, 10/17 – Oklahoma City, OK @ The Blue Note
Sat, 10/18 – Tulsa, OK @ Mercury Lounge
Sun, 10/19 – Lawrence, KS @ Jackpot Music Hall
Mon, 10/20 – Iowa City, IA @ Gabe’s
Tues, 10/21 – Chicago, IL @ Reggie’s
Wed, 10/22 – Eaton, OH @ Taffy’s
Thurs, 10/23 – Philadelphia @ The Grape Room
Sat, 10/25 – NYC @ Wicked Willy’s at 6:30 pm (Official CMJ Showcase)
Sun, 10/26 – NYC @ Rockwood Music Hall Stage 1
Mon, 10/27 – Charlotte @ Thomas Street Tavern
Tues, 10/28 – Chapel Hill @ The Cave (I’ll be at this one)
Wed, 10/29 – Nashville, TN @ The 5 Spot
Thurs, 10/30 – Huntsville, AL @ Maggie Meyer’s Irish Pub
Fri, 10/31 – Clarksdale, MS @ Shack Up Inn
Sat, 11/1 – Lafayette, LA @ Artmosphere
Sun, 11/2 – Austin, TX @ Sahara Lounge
Mon, 11/3 – Dallas @ Opening Bell
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.