My poles of folk are the raw troubadour folk of Bob Dylan’s The Freewheeling Bob Dylan and the contemporary songwriting of Josh Ritter’s Animal Years. Alan Barnosky‘s Old Freightcombines the vocal style of Dylan with the bright, contemporary recording style of Ritter and a fresh take on troubadour traveling lyrics. It is a fantastic album, full of clever guitar work, excellent vocal performances, and punchy arrangements. It is so good that I have trouble writing about it–it is the sort of work that needs no explanation once you’ve heard it. If you’re into folk, it will slot in perfectly next to Justin Townes Earle, Langhorne Slim, and (yes) Bob Dylan. It is easily one of the best folk albums of the year.
That previous paragraph should be enough, but I’ll attempt to throw some other words at it too. The record opens with “Bowling Green,” which is a perfect synopsis of the record: it updates a trad-style folk songwriting and lyrical frame with contemporary touches and flourishes. They aren’t overt, but they’re there–the long held lines in the vocals, the rhythms, and the excellent production value. There’s a touch of Nickel Creek here in the fleet mandolin solo.
“Roanoke Angeline” has excellent verse and chorus vocal melodies, making every second of the song a blast. It’s the sort of song that you can’t help but hum along with. “I Heart Mountains” has a bit more urgency in the vocal presentation added to all the charm of the aforementioned songs. This, as with many of the songs, is about traveling (in the finest troubadour style), but none of the lyrics feel trite. Appropriating emoji culture for the titular chorus phrase is just one of the touches throughout the record that place the feet of this record firmly in the contemporary moment.
I could spend a long time singing the praises of this record (“No Place to Go”! “Old Freight”! “Childhood Ghosts”! It’s all so good!). But it’s more productive to be short and sweet, so that you can spend less time listening to me and more time listening to Alan Barnosky. If you’re into folk music, Barnosky is a rare, doesn’t-come-around-that-often talent. Highly recommended.
Mr. Jukebox by Joshua Hedley is a trip of a debut album. These fresh ten songs via Third Man Records caught the attention of NPR Music, thanks to Hedley’s personal goal: music that honors tradition in a heartfelt way. The record’s authentic connection to an earthy Nashville sound lands it straight in the Great American Songbook.
Tapped as part of the Music We Love Series with NPR Music, the first single “Mr. Jukebox” embodies the essence of Hedley’s record and gives a taste of what is to come. This is classic country. Finding a way to make a nod to a traditional genre while still keeping it fresh is an ever-evolving quest for all artists in this ocean filled with decent songwriters. The quest is to rise above, all the while staying connected to roots Americana. Hedley does just that. This is that breath of fresh air that Americana has been waiting for, with its two-stepping, feel-good vibes.
This record fits with the Nashville sound recently celebrated by fellow troubadour Jason Isbell. This vibe was born in ‘50s honky tonks and bar rooms. Some of the best–from Jim Reeves, Charlie Pride, and Glen Campbell, all the way to Gretchen Wilson–all have some common threads: simple, authentic lyrics; lush instrumentation; and stories about life and love. Mr. Jukebox is steeped in this tradition. Listening almost feels like a flashback to a broadcast of the Grand Ol’ Opry, with the family circled around the radio in front of the fireplace on a Saturday night in a time not so long ago.
The opening lyrics of “Counting All My Tears” invite us all into a distinctive world. The Skylar-Wilson-and-Jordan-Lehning-produced record lets folks know what they are in for; this is real authentic music that does not come along every generation. Hedley was raised in Florida with a fiddle in his hands by the age of eight, growing up with a mom who played Neil Diamond and a dad who played Otis Redding. These influences shaped the songwriter Hedley would grow up to be. Is “Weird Thought Thinker” a self proclamation of the real man? One would think so, but the second record will tell us all for certain. In the meantime, listeners can almost hear the smile behind each lyric, each a dream that is becoming real.
His authentic delivery, full of heartfelt emotions, causes slow ballads to be standout tracks. These let the tone and delivery of this young talent shine: “Let’s Take A Vacation” is a drift-away moment, a lovely release full of hope and escape. Similarly fitting this bill is “Don’t Waste Your Tears,” which has almost an Elvis Presley, 1950s vibe–when he was truly a king during the Sun Records days. Accentuated with subtle instrumentation, this song is a cut above the rest, and that is ridiculous to say on a record this good. Honest and real, heartstrings are plucked and broken. “I Never Shed A Tear For You” is a honky tonk reinforcement of the truth. Sonically, this is stellar, with an array of support studio musicians and back-up singers that create a time capsule. Brilliance seems an understatement.
The uptempo stroll of “This Time,” lush with strings, is stunningly full of sarcasm. Each refrain is so well constructed musically that it seems simple. Heading out of the album, “Let Them Talk” is an homage to small town life. If you have lived in one, you know. Fun, bouncy secrets are always something everyone wants to be a part of; minding someone else’s business is always more exciting than minding one’s own.
Delivering a new take on an old classic, the close-out cut of the album is a cover of Ned Harline and Ned Washington’s “When You Wish Upon A Star,” best known for its rendition sung by Jiminy Cricket in the 1940 Disney animated classic Pinocchio. It definitely sums up the dreams of a three-year-old boy in Florida wishing for a fiddle. Mr. Jukebox by Joshua Hedley is destined to be a country music classic, earning its place in the catalog of the Great American Songbook. Hedley was honored with the distinction to be the first country artist signed to Jack White’s Third Man Records since Margo Price in 2015, so you can order the record from Third Man or elsewhere now. —by Lisa Whealy.
April 24—Nashville, TN—The Basement East April 27—Indio, CA—Stagecoach Festival April 30—West Hollywood, CA—The Roxy May 1—Los Angeles, CA—Hi Hat May 3—Evanston, IL—SPACE May 4—Minneapolis, MN—7th St Entry May 5—Davenport, IA—Raccoon Motel August 2–5—Happy Valley, OR—Pickathon
and more at his website.
1. “On the Run” – The Big Sky. A compelling mix of Asian vibes, glitchy beats, distorted synths, and sleepy vocals, this more-than-7-minute slice of indie-rock (?) is highly unusual in the best of ways.
2. “Point of Personal Privilege” – Weller. It’s not that I stopped liking punk rock, it’s that my bar for punk rock got so high that it became an incredibly hard thing to pass. Weller passes, partially because a good chunk of the song is composed of a calm, deftly-handled intricate guitar line, perfectly atypical drums, relaxed vocals, and angelic background vocals. When the full band comes charging in, it feels like a powerful payoff instead of an inevitability. If you love Transatlanticism but want the crunchy parts crunchier, jump on the bandwagon.
3. “Strange Year” – Team Picture. Big synth melodies atop an indie rock chassis create a punchy, soaring cut. Can’t say enough about the way the synths just take over this song but also manage to not turn this into an ’80s revival piece.
4. “3 AM Lullaby” – Hotel Mira. If you like listening to the Fratellis or Tokyo Police Club or the Strokes before bed, this chipper, weird indie-pop-rock tune will put you right to sleep. (In the good way.) For the rest of us wind down with mellow piano music or whatever, this is a great jam full of enthusiasm and falsetto that will fit excellently in your summer party playlist.
5. “100 Years or More” – Violet Delancey. I know this sounds fairly incredible, but if you add Shakira, Enya, and Celtic Folk together, you’d end up with this track. I know! It sounds crazy! But it’s really good!
6. “Pull Through” – Remember Sports. I’m not sure what this video is trying to say (are your band members just terrible people? Is this video in reverse? Is this about the psycho-dynamics of inter-band relationships? Is this … I could go on.), but the song is a great piece of pop music. The kitschy percussion and insistent acoustic guitar strumming provide a neat backdrop for cooing, ooo-ing indie-pop melodies. The rest of the arrangement is perfectly done to create some tidy-yet-slacker-sounding work. It’s the sort of thing where I hear it and say, “Yeah, that’s what it’s supposed to sound like, right there.”
7. “Paying Off the Happiness” – illuminati hotties. If you love bright, shiny, singable, self-deprecating power-pop, this song will be your jam. The vocal performance here is spot-on, balancing perky enthusiasm and droll self-concern.
8. “XO” – The Elation. A fun pop-rock tune with speedy vocal delivery, head-bobbing rhythms, and a great dance-oriented music video.
8. “Outside Saskatoon” – Espanola. What do we call Americana that comes from Canada? Anyway, this is a great Americana-infused rock song (that organ!) that reminds me of Glossary and The Weakerthans. “Hey! Come on!” is the way that the guitar solo kicks off, which you know is right. Just great stuff.
10. “Buzz Off” – Little Junior. A big, stomping power-pop tune that manages to sound enthusiastic and “totally over it” at the same time. Fans of old-school Weezer will have a lot of fun with this one, especially the tongue-in-cheek ’80s-style guitar solo.
11. “Who Will I Be For You” – Pale Houses. Speaking of the ’80s, this tune brings ’80s ballad vibes to bear on contemporary singer/songwriter work and creates a neat hybrid form out of the two. Aaron Robinson’s somewhat-anguished vocal performance is spot-on, nailing the vocal leaps and the pathos perfectly. Fans of ’80s pop will find themselves transported back to an earlier time, but this is no vintage copycat job–Robinson and crew do a great job of melding styles to find their own sound.
1. “Sweet Potato Kisses” – Marchildon! There are not nearly enough songs of paternal love in the world. Marchildon! has set about fixing that in a small way, as this tune unabashedly celebrates the daily life of a father taking care of a child and the joy it brings (as well as the chaos, mess, and everything else). This is also a great folk-pop/indie-pop song musically–it consists entirely of acoustic guitar, shaker, and Marchildon’s great vocals. It’s simple, sweet, and very worthwhile. You keep on keepin’ on, Marchildon!.
2. “Go” – HYWAYS. Now this is an impressive piece of work. “Go” seamlessly blends country twang and harmonica, psych drone, folk fingerpicking, and indie-pop instrumental melodies effortlessly. This is masterful arranging. Highly recommended.
3. “Dance Around the Room with Me” – Ana Egge. More subtle than you might imagine for a tune of its title, this poppy, acoustic indie track reminds me of Lisa Hannigan’s work. There’s still quite a bit of joy in this track, but it’s displayed in restrained, delicate ways. The tiny synth, pizzicato strings and woodwinds that come in by the end of the track are all lovely.
4. “With You Every Day” – Anna Burch. The vocal lines here are almost hypnotic, turning a solid, low-slung, slow-paced indie-rock tune into an irresistible piece of work.
5. “The Islands” – Pale Green Things. Named after a song that I love by the Mountain Goats, this lo-fi indie-pop tune has a lot to love for fans of John Darnielle’s crew: distinctive strum patterns, a “lead bass” melody, and catchy vocal patterns. The whispery vocals and occasional ’80s synth distinguish PGL as having a lo-fi vision of its own.
6. “One More Wave” – Ellie Schmidly. Has a sort of effortlessly swaying, Beirut-esque other-ness to it created through a multitude of small ideas adding up. Subtle arrangement touches like male backing vocals, pizzicato strings, legato strings, restrained percussion, and staccato rhythmic bursts create a fantastic tune that begs to be listened to multiple times.
7. “White Lights” – JOYNER. “I’ve been bad / but never this bad before” is one of the more infectious, can’t-get-it-out-of-my-head chorus lines I’ve heard in a long time. The heavily-rhythmic approach to the vocals contrasts effectively against the smoothed-out, legato arrangement. It’s got shades of hip-hop beats filtered through a dream-pop filter. Really fascinating track.
8. “France (Grands Boulevards)” – Yumi Zouma. The soft, gentle synths create a comfy blanket around the dreamy vocals. The whole thing sounds like a warm springs burbling up from the earth, inviting you to come relax and rest. It’s not quite ambient, not quite indie-pop, and all interesting.
Bon Villan reeled me in with the infectious electro-pop of “Outta Cash” and kept me with the rest of their self-titled EP. “Outta Cash” has a brilliant chorus vocal hook, a bright-shiny electro arrangement, and a rock-solid “bring it down now” bridge to hype that last chorus section. It’s just a great pop tune.
“When I Came Up” packs all the attitude and insanely catchy vocal melodies and rhythms into a low-key jam, like Matt and Kim might make if they were real, real chill. I love it. The nuanced indie-pop arrangement of “How to Hurt” is basically a Generationals song, which has me totally into it. There’s some understated guitars and digital percussion, some quiet-to-loud vocals, and more. It helps that, again, the vocal melodies are just ace.
The lowslung “Love Online” has some Cobra Starship cool, a sort of unsung groove that keeps things moving without calling huge attention to “this is a dance track” (which, of course, calls huge attention from a certain section of people who love that type of track). “Feel It Out” is in the same vein, albeit with a bit more stomping percussion to get people going. But it’s still dark and groove-laden instead of hitting a big synth.
It takes a lot for me to get excited about dance-oriented electro, but Bon Villan have done it. Bon Villan has a lot of promise with this EP—if you’re into low-key electro-pop with big melodies and understated arrangements, you’ll find a lot to love here.
Mallory Graham has a big, powerful voice well-suited to traditional, high-drama alt-country/folk (dramatic alt-country: “Viroqua, WI,” “Better for You”; folk: “Steel in My Blood”). Scott Tyler has a voice more suited to alt-folk/folk-pop a la Nickel Creek (“Take Me With You,” “Let’s Get the Band Back Together”), so they cover a lot of ground here in this album. When they sing together, it takes on a duet-ish alt-country feel with a bit of indie-pop thrown in (i.e. there’s a glockenspiel in “Steel in My Blood”).
The arrangements that support these vocals are always strong and clear; there are no fluffy songs and no filler instruments in the arrangements–just tight, strong folk music. “Bobby and Joanne” connects all their tendencies in one tune, with male/female vocals, alt-country roots, indie quirks, banjo strum, and folk-pop percussion stomp. The excellent “Tiny Moses” also is an examplar piece of work and a good starting place for people to enter the record. (Bonus / bummer: the intro will make you pine for The Low Anthem.)
I personally enjoyed the swift fingerpicking and glockenspiel of “Cohabitation Physics,” as the instruments made me think of Josh Ritter and Justin Towns Earle. The tune continues on into a fun folk-pop piece with accordion and mouth trumpet.
If you’re into a wide range of acoustic-oriented sounds, you’re going to have a lot of fun discovering the many surprises and gems of The Rough and Tumble’s We Made Ourselves a Home When We Didn’t Know. It has charms galore.
Dane Joneshill‘s voice is impressive. It’s a strong, clear, and confident tenor, soaring in the right places; it’s the kind of voice people work a very long time to gain control over. Joneshill, by contrast, has it nailed on his debut album.
The vocal performances aren’t the only thing that Joneshill delivers with excellence. His arrangements, whether piano-based or guitar-based, frame Joneshill’s voice perfectly. Everything about Everything That Rises Must Convergefeels very established and mature—there aren’t any notes out of place or elements of the arrangement that detract from the songs.
Joneshill’s milieu is a gravitas-laden mix of contemporary folk, Southern rock, and singer/songwriter work; fans of Jason Isbell, Needtobreathe, Josh Ritter, and more will find themselves grabbed by this work. “First Communion” is a powerful example of his sound—start here if you’re going to start anywhere. The melodies are indelible, the arrangement pounds, and the overall product mines a deep vein of emotion.
“Live a Little” has a more southern rock vibe, a la Needtobreathe. “If I Could” features more excellent vocals from Joneshill; the vocal melodies are particularly great in the bridge. “Billy” is a great piano-led folk tune—there aren’t a lot of those, so this is high praise. This one is an elegy for a dying person, which makes it hit pretty hard. Fans of a more singer/songwriter-oriented Jason Isbell will feel this one real hard.
Speaking of hitting hard, “We Lie Together” is a devastatingly sad tune about a crumbling marriage. It might be a bit too close to home for some people, but then again, it might be encouraging in some way to those going through it.
“The Long Way Around” wraps up the record excellently, bringing all of the elements of his sound together in one strong tune. He throws in some gospel for good measure, making this one of the most fun songs in addition to being one of the most interesting. If you’re looking for some Southern music that’s full of emotion and depth, Everything That Rises Must Converge should be on your must-hear list.
I’ve been listening to a lot of major-key indie-pop lately, and Driftwood Scarecrow‘s Beyond the Breakers fits near that realm. It’s as if Alexi Murdoch’s chillness, Bright Eyes’ vulnerability, Elliott Smith’s commitment to small-sounding arrangements, Sufjan Stevens’ titles (“Concerning the Incident by the Shed”) and twee vocals all had a picnic on a sunny hill while talking about death.
Seriously though, almost all of these songs are about death and trauma: family members dying (“Buffalo”), depression/suicide (“The Herpetologist”), self-harm (“Concerning the Incident by the Shed”), terror attacks (“Maury Park”), and unspecified tragedy (“The Vermonter”), among others. But fear not: all of those songs are in major keys, quietly strummed and sung. So if you’re the sort of person that doesn’t listen to lyrics too hard, this can be super-chill! If you’re into lyrics, then those who are into Elliott Smith songs should apply within.
The arrangements are small, as mentioned above, but they are impeccably done–these songs sound confident and well-written in their quietude. You don’t have to get wild and crazy to know you’re doing what you want to be doing. I’d start with the impressive “The Herpetologist” and then move on to the deeply moving “Buffalo.”
On No Story Is Over, Son of Laughter (Chris Slaten) stretches his wings way out and shows what he is capable of. Unshackled from his original genre as a light-hearted folk-pop singer/songwriter, this indie-pop album explores wide-ranging sonic interests and complex lyrical territory.
No Story Is Over opens with a giant Illinoise-style pileup in “Voting Day,” complete with a giant horn section, gospel choir, electric guitar, and more. Slaten conjures up marching-band levels of enthusiasm in the instrumentalists and the listener. The enthusiasm continues in a different vein on “Flesh and Bone,” where there’s a Middle-Eastern sound to the strings and percussion. There’s even a flamenco-esque vibe in the swift nylon-stringed guitar performance. Slaten is a more aggrieved than charmed (“Oh my brothear! Killing me with categories! Oh my sister! Killing me with categories!”) but the energy holds throughout. It is an interesting, unique song.
“Hurricanes” is a high-drama indie rock song that has (appropriately) some sea shanty vibes. It’s the most complex tune he’s yet attempted, featuring a six-minute runtime and multiple distinct sections. There’s more than a bit of Mumfordian, high-drama folk in it. Lyrically, it aims high as well; the whole thing is an extended metaphor over the stormy relationship between the narrator and God over the problem of evil. If your opinion of extended metaphors is good, you’ll like this solidly-executed effort quite a bit.
“Take Me Down” has some more Mumfordian drama in the lyrics. The torrential arrangement still manages to include a glockenspiel and jazzy clarinet, despite the ominous minor key vibe and the dark lyrics (“I’m a monster / I’ve been this way”). But the arrangement, even in its most dense and thick, has more levity than a Mumford tune due to its choice of instruments and Slaten’s voice being less howling than Marcus Mumford’s. (Almost everyone’s voice is less howling than Marcus Mumford’s, to be fair.)
“The Meal We Could Not Make” continues that drama with choir, horns, glockenspiel and pizzicatto strings. The swift fingerpicking points toward the light folk he was doing before (as do the title track and “The Gardener”), but everything else points in his new direction. The lyrics here are moving for those of the Christian persuasion. Closer “Make Me Captive” is a worship track of sorts—the lyrics are definitely worshipful, while the music is more along the lines of the slightly-off-kilter, The Welcome Wagon approach than a CCM jam. It is quiet and far less dramatic than that of the previous tunes, pointing back toward his earlier work.
No Story Is Over suggests in its title and in its tunes that Slaten’s work as Son of Laughter is an ongoing reinvention. Slaten’s ability to pack instruments into a tune but not turn out a heavy, thick sound is deeply admirable; it will serve him well no matter where his tunes may lie in the future. Yet those who loved the bright folk-pop of his earlier work won’t feel out in the cold. No Story Is Over bridges two sounds beautifully and points off into the future–it’s quite an accomplishment.
Angela Josephine‘s “River Rising” is a mystical, mesmerizing folk tune. It’s not a folk-pop tune; this is an earthy, organic song that seems drawn out of the titular body of water or the depths of a forest. Josephine relies much more on mood, atmosphere, and impeccable arrangements than huge melodies–the result is a carefully constructed tune that is hard to stop listening to.
Mandolin is the base of this tune, but subterranean cello, loping bass, subtle percussion, and occasional dramatic violin create the sonic landscape. Josephine’s voice is the last layer on top, a low, confident voice bearing religious imagery and effortless gravitas. The tune re-tells the Biblical narrative of Rahab, a prostitute who ended up in the lineage of Christ due to her actions saving Israelite spies. (It’s really quite a wild tale.)
The coda speeds up the walking-speed tune a bit, increasing the urgency of the piece. But overall, this is a song that moves at its own measured pace, creating the vibes it wants to create and not being hurried or harried by other genre expectations. It’s an unusually compelling tune.
“River Rising” comes from her forthcoming record Daylight, which drops May 4. IC fave Chris Bathgate produced the record. You can check out Josephine on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.