Angela James – Way Down Deep. James’ voice is the star of this rich, elegant collection. Her strong, clear, bright alto leads the way through sparse but not stark environments, occasionally striking out with not much more than a gentle, distant guitar. She goes completely a capella in the evocative title track, a bold, risky move that pays off gloriously. She effects a regal stance through these tunes by calling up mental images of the torchy lounge singer, the world-weary blues singer, and the old-school country diva–sometimes all within the same song: “Dirty Moon” mixes 1800s saloon-style piano with early ‘1900s ragtime and jazz instrument soloing.
The album moves expertly through combinations of smooth jazz, alt-country, and modern singer-writer, showing tasteful, thoughtful touches no matter which genre is dominant in a song. (Check the wonderful jazz instrumental “Salt Town.”) But even though the arrangements are great, James is at her best when she lets it be stark and quiet: “I Should’ve Known,” “Lost and Found,” and the title track are majestic and masterful. The deft, impressive songwriting of Way Down Deep is the perfect vehicle for James’ remarkable vocal talents while still being engaging in its own right: there’s not much more you can ask of an album. And it’s classy as anything, too. Highly recommended.
Quinn Tsan – Good Winter. Bon Iver established brittle, distant, forlorn sounds as the definitive winter soundtrack; Quinn Tsan falls a bit afield from that vision by injecting warmth and immediacy into the vocals and instruments while still retaining the stark, austere singer/songwriter vibe. Songs like “Bedrooms III” perfectly capture the conflicted feel of sitting by a warm fire on a dark, cold night–your hands are comfortable, but the cold is creeping up your back. “Oh! The Places We’ll See!” delivers a similar vibe, but with a bit more of a sea shanty air. The title track of this six-song EP is actually the least wintry, as Tsan appropriates a lilting vocal style and a gentle-yet-perky instrumentation more similar to Lisa Hannigan, Regina Spektor, or Ingrid Michaelson. It’s an interesting, enveloping EP that establishes Tsan as someone to watch.
Sloth – Still Awake. Sloth is pretty perfectly named for a rock band that combines a pronounced Pavement streak in the vocals and guitar with a shuffle-snare alt-country. It’s a situation where the best of both worlds come together: the endearing slacker ethos of early ’90s indie-rock meets the fresh-faced sounds of ’90s alt-country in tunes like “Matador Scarf” and “No Places to Be.” Scuzzy guitar drops into the background of tunes, mumbly vocals wander around with wry amusement written all over them, and overall good vibes permeate everything.
Even tunes that lean more to one side of their genre mix are fun: “Cheer Up Charlie” is devoid of alt-country and plays up the pseudo-funky chill that white boys were (are) all about; “This Dashboard Looks Like the Rest of Our Lives” is a bent take on trad country, while “Dark Dark Dark” is as close to Jayhawks as Sloth gets. But it’s opener “Smug Rock” that shows the best way forward for Sloth: a space somewhere between the two genres where they can put their stamp on the sound. Just like most early ’90s indie-rock, Sloth’s work is just plain fun to listen to: delightfully quirky, unexpectedly exciting, and altogether impressive.