Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Mid-February MP3s: 1

February 15, 2018

1. “Awkward” – Sleep State. There are not enough people following in Hall and Oates’ pop footsteps, and this is being corrected by Sleep State in this fantastic tune. Peppy melodies, occasional screamin’ falsetto, perky arrangements complete with frantic tambourine: it’s all here. Pop fans, rejoice.

2. “Old Town” – Say Sue Me. This outfit has major-key indie-rock down: they’ve thrown in bits of surf, emo, punk, Vampire Weekend, indie-pop, and more into a can’t-keep-the-smile-off-my-face summer jam. Expertly crafted tune here.

3. “Love in Winter” – Palm Ghosts. The thrumming synthesizer, driving percussion, baritone male vocals, and strong female vocals will pull anyone back into warm, excellent nostalgia for the ’80s. The jubilant chorus melody is just great.

4. “Snow (again)” – The fin. This track about winter evokes the woozy wonder of being a kid out in a big field of unsullied snow. The whisper-sung vocals croon over a roiling bass of synths and loping electric guitar–it’s a weird, wild, full track right up until the 1:57 mark, when it suddenly ends. A unique experience.

5. “I’m Not Ready” – Sally Crosby. A charming ukulele and shaken percussion accompany a blitzing, breathless vocal performance. It’s like Regina Spektor, Kimya Dawson, and Ingrid Michaelson collaboratively wrote a tune and ended up creating something unique and bold.

6. “That Old Famous Smile” – Flood County. A smooth, round baritone voice leads the way through this folk/country tune. The opening melancholia opens up into a sprightly jaunt led by dueling pedal steel and fiddle. The overall product is a relaxing, thoughtful piece of acoustic-led music.

7. “Fortaleza” – Hanging Valleys. How can a track be wintry and warm at the same time? The reverb-heavy effects on the instruments and the pad synths create a feeling of cold expanses, but the Bon Iver-ian falsetto vocals feel intimate and warm. The subtle electric guitar brings out the rays of the sun even more on the arid tundra. This tune is a beautiful, carefully developed track.

8. “Walls” – Racoon Racoon. The female lead vocals here are lithe and perfectly matched with the string-bass-heavy folk arrangement. From the bass to the acoustic guitar to the fiddle to the minimal percussion, this is a buoyant, elegant piece.

9. “Bardo” – GoGoPenguin. This soaring, rattling, dramatic instrumental piece is jazz for people who don’t like jazz: melding the build and fall aesthetics of post-rock, the thrumming intensity of punk, and the complex groove of the drumming into one, they create something electric and undefinable (while using only acoustic instruments). Wow and a half. Highly recommended.




B. Snipes: Making simplicity sound easy

February 9, 2018

B. Snipes‘ debut Away, Away established Snipes’ immense potential as a folk singer/songwriter, while his follow-up American Dreamer showed off his pop songcraft. With his new album My Mountain Home, Snipes circles back and makes good on the promise of his debut EP. My Mountain Home is a impressive collection of warm, deftly-handled folk songs. Snipes makes simplicity sound easy, as if there’s anything easy about writing concise, minimally-arranged songs that are each distinctly rewarding.

In contrast to the big pop record he just came from, Home is a much more intimate affair in arrangement and subject matter. The arrangements rarely get beyond a warm, round guitar; Snipes’ easygoing vocals; background harmonies; and occasional support instrument (violin, piano, or banjo). Far from being repetitive, the consistency gives a comfortable, familial feel to the work–these are all tunes that you can play on the back porch or around the fire without drastically changing the arrangement. That’s a true folk record right there: these are B. Snipes’ songs, but they can also be your songs. They can be anyone’s songs.

The subject matter is intimate and familial as well. As the title suggests, this is an album about growing up in the mountains. Snipes grew up there, and his father did too–four short interviews with Snipes’ father are woven through the record. They ground the record in lived experience and real places; they are the rare spoken word interstitials that contribute to the album instead of taking away from the flow.

Between and around those interviews are the songs, which run the gamut of topics: “40 Acres” a nostalgic stream of memories about living on the mountain, “Veggie Stew” (featuring a banjo) is a love song comparing the quality of love to the quality of vegetable stew, “Simple” is an indictment of the complexity of modern life, and “Last Night” is a murder ballad (!). Each of these tunes have a direct or indirect appreciation for rural life that ties them together almost as tightly as the shared arrangement style.

It’s opener “Oh Tennessee” that encapsulates the record best. All the themes of the record are there in the first three lines: “When I was young, I learned to comb my hair and shoot a gun / on a 40-acre farm there in those woods / I came to learn the simple life is sweet.” Those lyrics are delivered by Snipes’ effortless delivery and paired with guileless, delicate fingerpicking. Gentle vocal harmonies and resonant piano fill out the tune, creating a perfect opening track to set the tone for the record.

My Mountain Home is a true-blue folk record that evokes all of the best aspects of folk: personal-yet-univeral lyrics, warm arrangements, and great melodies. The results are an honest, earnest, intimate account of rural life that is easy to listen to and easy to love. It fulfills the promise of Snipes’ early work and establishes him as a thoughtful, careful songwriter. Snipes is one to watch. Fans of Sam Amidon’s quieter work should take to this one with great joy. Highly recommended.




Quick Hit: The Good Graces’ The Hummingbird EP

February 6, 2018

I’ve been listening to The Good Graces for a long time, and I can say with some familiarity that they love a sad song. As a result, there are a few surprises in The Hummingbird EP. Hummingbird flits about like the titular avian, going from the full-band sad song “The First Girl” to the almost-happy love song “X my <3” to the knowingly-calling-it-out major-key jaunt “(I Should Probably Write a) Happy Song” and closing with the sort-of-sad “Waiting.” All throughout, Kim Ware gives some of her best vocal performances of her career, sounding confident and calm in the midst of a diverse set of indie-folk tunes.

“The First Girl” is a gut-wrencher, the sort of song that could have easily fit on previous breakup album Set Your Sights but got cut for some idiosyncratic reason. (Maybe it just didn’t fit in the final song sequence–songs have been cut for less.) “X my <3” is a pensive, brooding track that would fit sonically with the previous record (especially the fractured distorted guitar noise), but lyrically looks in a different direction. “(I Should Probably Write a) Happy Song” is a fantastic pop song that seems like a good reason to create an EP–it’s clever, fun, and (almost) totally out of character with the previous record. There are some references to the relational strain that caused Set Your Sights to exist, but it’s largely a self-deprecating look at the life of a folk singer.

“Waiting” closes out the short EP with a woozy, Clem Snide-esque alt-country take; it’s a lovely track instrumentally and vocally. As I mentioned before, Ware’s vocals are strong throughout, and this is no exception. If you’re looking for a quick primer on what The Good Graces can do before diving into the discography, The Hummingbird EP is a great place to start.

Late January Singles 4: The Kitchen Sink

1. “Mountains” – Oh Geronimo. This fantastic indie-pop song combines math-rock guitars, Manchester Orchestra-level emotion (but in an optimistic way!), so-good vocal melodies, and contemporary indie-pop aesthetics (horns!). It’s the sort of song that manages to make a high level of complexity instantly accessible. Highly recommended.

2. “How It Feels” – Scenic Route to Alaska. An indie-pop-rock tune with an absolutely A+ chorus that emerges out of nowhere with a towering lead vocal line, counterpoint background vocals, and punchy guitars. It’s like Generationals, the Beach Boys, and ’90s Brit rock thrown into a blender.

3. “rooftops” – Prawn. The jangly guitars, high-pitched male vocals, and punchy drums/bass combo are full-on emo revival, and it’s so good. There’s also whistling! But the main thing here is the irresistibly charming video about a man and his dog.

4. “Belle’s aka Modern Timed Instrumental” – BLACKNIGHT. Synthy dream-pop gets infused with some snappy instrumental hip-hop vibes to create a tight, interesting take. It’s a feast of different tones and rhythms, blended together seamlessly.

5. “What You’ve Become” – Tango with Lions. Any fans of Grandaddy will immediately appreciate this gently-fuzzed out acoustic/electric songwriting approach. The choppy rhythms accentuate the vocal performance excellently.

6. “Fallen” – I Hate You Just Kidding. A wistful, romantic indie-pop tune that sounds like sitting on top of a large hill with your loved one, looking up at the stars and feeling small. The female lead vocal performance here is vulnerable and perfectly matched to the gently insistent arrangement.

7. “Till Tomorrow Goes Away” – Cut Worms. What if The Walkmen had been a folk band? Would their yearning have been maintained? Cut Worms is exploring that vein, as the squalling guitar leads and yearning vocals of the sadly defunct outfit seem to have been poured into a relaxed, back-porch pickin’ frame. It’s not quite folk, not quite pop–it’s something floating in between, something engaging and new.

8. “FIDITL” – Ohsergio. Starts off glitchy and broken, then turns to a charging folk guitar and floating vocal for the next bit. The conclusion brings the glitchy bits and folk bits together for an ominous-yet-intimate performance.

9. “Wildfire” – Leah James. A smooth, Simon and Garfunkel-esque folk arrangement allows Leah James’ voice to float effortlessly above the mix. Sounds very little like an actual wildfire, and it’s all the better for that.

10. “Broken Wing” – Lowpines. You can wrap the icy, wintry, woodsy vibes around you like a coat. The vocal melodies in the chorus are just lovely.

11. “Doing Alright” – Corey Nolen. Infuses the traditional vibe of Western swing with some contemporary vocal melodies and some well-done pathos. Nolen’s low voice sounds perfect in the well-turned fiddle/piano/acoustic guitar/electric guitar/bass/drums/ arrangement.

12. “Watermelon” – Jerry David DeCicca. A peaceful, pastoral piece that celebrates everything about the humble watermelon. The fluttering clarinet, string bass, and sighing background vocals make this a breath of fresh air.




Late January Singles 3: Instrumental

February 5, 2018

1. “5.00am” – Raphaelle Thibaut. This piano-led piece opens almost ambiently due to the otherworldly, glowing pad synths that make their way around and through the gentle piano work. The track opens up into an almost Sigur Ros-ian culmination, with multiple string parts bursting into the arrangement in a triumphant manner. The whole piece does feel like the moments just as the sun is rising, as the darkness recedes and the rays break over the horizon. An incredible work. Highly recommended.

2. “Another World” – firosuke. This long, flowing solo piano piece seems to explore a wide, unknown space–a spacious underground cavern, a deep forest, or a castle. There’s all manner of small moments in the piece that strike different moods and tones, just as the internal excitement of exploring can sometimes give way to monotony–until a huge moment of external action. Very narrative, but not a soundtrack piece–this work has its own internal logic and is not handmaiden to other visual action. A distinct, interesting work.

3. “Intro (“Paradisum”)” – Dubbini. Big organ, gothic bell-hits, orchestral grounding, thick choral vocals, medieval-chant-style vocals, woodwinds, and more create a fantastically complex and evocative piece of composed music. This sort of high-drama, mysterious, powerful work is why video game designers sometime in the last 25 years were like, “OH MAN we could use CLASSICAL MUSIC and it would be GREAT!”

4. “Murmurations” – Michael Perera. Wave after wave of speedily cascading piano notes coalesce into a mesmerizing flow, like staring at a rapidly moving creek. Connections to mid-century minimalist composition techniques are tempered by a melodic sensibility that calls to mind Carly Comando. An excellent composition.

5. “Adrift” – Jesse Brown. This brief, low-key piano track balances traditional solo piano introspection with an unusually bluesy streak. It’s cool, calm, and collected–an unusual (and unusually interesting) effort in the genre.

6. “Swim Safety” – Legumina. Glitchy yet still dreamy, this instrumental track sidles its way up next to you and slowly starts dancing sinuously. It’s got trip-hop cool without having the trip-hop rhythmic identifiers.

7. “Reminisce” – Jabbar. Lo-fi instrumental hip-hop that sounds strongly influenced by dungeon crawling video game soundtracks. Artsy and intriguing, yet still danceable.

8. “Letters from India” – Kevin Cryderman. Adventurous, high-intensity acoustic guitar work is the centerpiece of this folk tune. Cryderman’s voice is strong and the melodies are memorable, but it’s the various sections of intriguing solo acoustic guitar work that really set this track apart.




Late January Singles 2: Indie pop and folk

February 4, 2018

1. “Hold Your Head Up” – Darlingside. A cross between the icy reverie of Bon Iver and the mystical, quiet folk of Sufjan’s Michigan creates one of the most lovely folk tracks I’ve heard all year. The vocal melodies and harmonies are just astounding. Highly recommended.

2. “RUN” – DANSU. A sleek-yet-punchy indie-pop track that’s a little dancy, a little dreamy, a little guitar-rock-y, and a little Vampire Weekend-y. All of that comes together into a bright, fun track.

3. “Wild Heart” – The Singer and the Songwriter. This is an huge, major-key folk-pop explosion, complete with charging drums and surging guitar. The dignified, careful vocal performance is the perfect counterpoint to the instrumental enthusiasm. The music video does everything right too: a perfect match for the lyrics, the choreography the dance troupe performs is wonderful and inspiring.

4. “Crane Song” – TOLEDO. A waltzing, lilting acoustic guitar strum is matched by a softly crooning voice to create some quiet indie-pop in the vein of Jens Lekman, Belle and Sebastian, and Fionn Regan. The song passes through different movements over its nearly five minutes, showing off different angles of TOLEDO’s sound, and all of them are impressive.

5. “Childhood Ghosts” – Alan Barnosky. Fans of old-school Joe Pug will hear the creaky voice, fans of old Tallest Man on Earth will hear the fingerpicking, and fans of folk will rejoice. This is the second Barnosky track of the last few days, because I’m just so taken with his sound. Great stuff here.

6. “Stay With Me” – The Minnesota Child. Dusky, full-bodied folk-pop that has the gravitas of Fleet Foxes and the enthusiasm of The Oh Hellos. The wordless vocal lines in the bridge are just beautiful, and the organ in the last chorus caps it off perfectly. This is how it’s done, folks. Highly recommended.

7. “Where the Good Buzz Goes” – John John Brown. Brown knows how to spin a story, play a mean folk guitar, and sing like it’s no work at all. This particular track is a blues for a veteran, and Lord knows there aren’t enough blues for them to go around. John John Brown is someone you need to hear. Highly recommended.

8. “The Herpetologist” – Driftwood Scarecrow. If you wished that folk sounded more like Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, boy do I have a tune for you. This slightly strummed, delicately sung, fairly twee track has the chord structure and melodic structures to suggest the most disciplined version of Conor Oberst. As a result, this fantastic song is a glistening soap bubble, a beautiful feather floating upward, and a lazy day in a hammock all combined into one.

9. “Savannah” – Brooks Dixon. This alt-country tune features strong instrumental performances in the verses and a knock-out chorus. Dixon’s vocal melodies in the chorus will stick in your head for a long time. There’s a lot of charm and heart in this tune.

10. “Forth Year” – Jack Shields. A gritty vocal performance flows over a smooth, warm west-coast country track. The multiple layers of vocals really make this track special.

11. “Richmond, Meet Richard” – Richard Sherfey. Sherfey knows how to use his voice to best effect: he’s able to subtly sing over delicate fingerpicking and also soar a huge line out of nowhere for the chorus. Fans of serious songwriters (Joseph Arthur, Damien Rice, and Richard Buckner for starters) have a new songwriter to track.

12. “Lone Bulb” – Crooked Cat Adams. Starts off slow, but builds to include electronic percussion, horn, organ, and electric guitar crunch in a very impressive arrangement. It’s hard to come up with comparisons for something so unique, but I guess it sounds somewhat like Neutral Milk Hotel (the horns at 2:50!) merged with a mellowed-out Lord Huron (?). It’s just good music, okay? You should go listen to it.




Late January Singles 1: Folk and Instrumental

February 2, 2018

1. “Old Freight” – Alan Barnosky. Barnosky’s evocative, high-pitched voice grabbed me from the first note he sang. He pairs his oh-so-gripping voice with some excellent folk work–this is how you update trad sounds to sound modern. And the song’s about trains! It doesn’t get folkier than this, friends. Fans of Justin Townes Earle’s bright folk will fall over this one. Highly recommended.

2. “These Days” – Ali Morrison. I love the jaunty, folky guitar style here, reminiscent of Langhorne Slim and others. Morrison takes that upbeat folk base and builds a much sadder song on top of it via synths, his vocal performance, and his downtrodden lyrics. The tension between the guitar and the rest of the arrangement is unique and interesting.

3. “Pieces of a Puzzle” – Daniel Pearson. Fans of the Barr Brothers and Gregory Alan Isakov will find this full-band folk tune much to their liking. Pearson’s wordless vocal melodies in the chorus feel timeless and immediate; the rest of the song slots in perfectly behind it. It’s a song that seems like I’ve always known it, but it’s new to me. Excellent stuff.

4. “Portland” – Strangers by Accident. The drums provide a lot of atmosphere and lift for this folk-pop tune from the very get-go; they keep it rolling in the fun, upbeat chorus. This is top-shelf folk-pop that doesn’t compromise on the folk or the pop: the arrangement is a strong and thoughtful folk tune, while the chorus is one big sonic blast of pop enthusiasm. Also there’s a well-played harmonica, which is always +10 point folk points.

5. “Where Do I Go From Here?” – Liisa. Ukulele-fronted indie-pop will always grab me, but it’s an even easier sell with a chipper vocal performance, fun melody, and handclaps. The most surprising bit of this song is the bassist, who goes off on swift runs and bouncy rhythms like it’s Graceland up in here. Rad rad rad.

6. “Deep Down Yonder” – Strange Pilgrims. Transforms the strutting bass groove so intrinsic to funk into something that splits the difference between rustic and futuristic: the tambourine and wheezing, accordion-esque sounds keep it grounded in a historic past, but the overall vibe very much points toward the future. Very cool track.

7. “Stenograph Letters” – Astroboter. The guitar line dances along the edge of melancholy and sinister; it gets a lift from the speedy breakbeats and the thumping bass. The whole piece comes together into a fantastically cool, driving, groove-heavy instrumental piece that draws from a lot of different genres.

8. “Future Unfolding” – Thomas Carleberg and Emil Nilsson. A broad, sweeping soundtrack piece from the titular video game that slots in with some of the best of the genre: Monument Valley, Journey, Alto’s Adventure, et al. The simple, unadorned arrangement conveys a sense of wonder in a most beautiful way.

9. “Översiktskarta över Kullahusområdet” – Jäverling ◇ von Euler. A nostalgic, wistful melody gently guides this delicate, elegant piece. If you’re scrambling over “too much to do and not enough time to do it,” do yourself a favor and have five minutes of mental rest to this lovely work.

10. “Winter” – Koronis. Treble notes tentatively search across a sufficiently wintry soundscape–lots of long-held bass notes that create an earthy grounding for the track. The tension between the treble and the not-that-much-lower bass hand create interesting moments throughout this instrumental piano piece.

11. “La Danzatrice” – Roberto Fusco Di Maso. This neo-classical piano piece has several beautiful melodies and satisfying development of the piece throughout. There are some treble runs and some melodic theatrics, which are a lot of fun. This is a piece that shows off some strong compositional and performance chops in a more traditional classical style.




The Wood Brothers’ One Drop of Truth: Diverse sounds and ideas come together

January 31, 2018

When it comes to truth, The Wood Brothers have proclaimed that their new album One Drop of Truth was the most fun the band has had making a record. This concept might be hard to believe ten records in, but this self-produced album feels free. That happiness shows. Featured in both Rolling Stone and NPR as a preemptive strike, the force of this musical tsunami of talent is not to be taken lightly.

The Wood Brothers have something to say on their sixth studio album One Drop of Truth via Honey Jar Records/Thirty Tigers. This trio, comprised of Chris and Oliver Wood along with Jano Rix, created a ten-track collection that drifts away from their normal, concept-oriented fare into a deeper level of sonic genius. Simple and elegant, this is authentic beyond belief. “Often, when you’re making an album in the traditional way, there will be a unifying concept, whether that be in the approach to the music stylistically or lyrically in terms over the overall narrative. And even though there are some themes that revealed themselves later, this one is all over the place,” explains Oliver Wood. “What I really love about this record is that each one of these songs has its own little world. There are diverse sounds and vibes from one track to the next.”

The band’s embrace of a diverse release has offered up a collection of tracks that slide through vibes effortlessly. A stellar showcase of dense instrumentation and lush rich vocals, this is not 2015’s  Paradise. That one was called “the warmest, most sublime and occasionally rowdiest Wood Brothers release yet” by American Songwriter. One Drop of Truth is a revolution and evolution; rather than recording all at once in the same studio, one or two songs a day were tracked then allowed to rest.  

Sliding in with “River Takes the Town,” a comfortable flood of familiarity eases in lyrically. Oliver Wood’s poignant delivery envelops the listener with a flood of emotion. Featuring a groove that will not quit, “Happiness Jones” (the first single from the album) dips into the sublime contradictions of love and life. “Laughing or Crying” is a gem of folk composition, as Jano Rix makes this a great adventure in a gypsy-esque romp through the haunts of the city. The tune is a dark narrative of decay and contradiction. Listeners get a visual with the music here: this is songwriting at its best.

Soft and sensual, “Strange As It Seems” is a love song for the ages. Beautifully arranged cello and guitar shine along with simple vocals. Earthy and real, this is a picture of love painted with musical notes. A masterful bit of sequencing happens with “Sky High” here taking love from the bedroom out into a strut on the street; a completely different different experience.

Among the standouts on this masterful album, “Seasick Emotions” is a seascape blowing in with a hollow wind. Chris Wood’s bass paints a seascape of metaphors lyrically. Beautifully executed with harmonies reminiscent of Crosby, Stills, and Nash, this song is stellar.  Finding listeners over halfway through a great album, “This Is It” brings it backs to the porch or barn dance: simple life, rustic and real. Chris and Oliver Wood are so good together, and this song is that toe-tapping damn good time. No pretense, no confusion. Just love.

With an acapella opening “One Drop Of Truth” wraps up this album with a raw, swanky groove that earns its place as the title track. Honky tonk instrumentation is just damn cool, fading out with an echo of hope toward the final track.  Hitting it home with “Can’t Look Away,” this is the partner to the title track; rather than selling one’s soul, it is best to walk away, The Wood Brothers say. It’s the perfect haunting bluesy punctuation mark on the album. Regardless of what the band says about no concept going in, there is definitely one for the listener going out. Truth is all about seeing the train wreck and the love while not losing hope in between. —Lisa Whealy

Jan. 25 – Charlottesville, VA – Jefferson Theatre
Jan. 26 – Washington, DC – Lincoln Theatre
Jan. 27 – Washington, DC – Lincoln Theatre
Jan. 28 – Philadelphia, PA – Union Transfer
Jan. 30 – Albany, NY – The Egg (Sold Out)
Jan. 31 – New York, NY – Irving Plaza
Feb. 1 – New York, NY – Irving Plaza
Feb. 2 – Portland, ME – State Theatre
Feb. 3 – Boston, MA – House of Blues
Feb. 10 – Miami Beach, FL – Groundup Music Festival
Feb. 21 – Phoenix, AZ – MIM Music Theater (Sold Out)
Feb. 22 – Solana Beach, CA – Belly Up
Feb. 23 – Los Angeles, CA – Fonda Theatre
Feb. 24 – San Francisco, CA – The Fillmore
Feb. 25 – San Francisco, CA – The Fillmore
Feb. 27 – Arcata, CA – Kate Buchanan Room
Feb. 28 – Ashland, OR – Southern Oregon University
Mar. 1 – Portland, OR – Crystal Ballroom
Mar. 2 – Seattle, WA – Neptune
Mar. 17 – Nashville, TN – Ryman Auditorium
Apr. 11 – Minneapolis, MN – First Avenue
Apr. 12 – Madison, WI – Majestic Theatre
Apr. 13 – Chicago, IL – Vic Theatre
Apr. 14 – Chicago, IL – Vic Theatre
Apr. 15 – St. Louis, MO – The Pageant
Apr. 17 – Cincinnati, OH – Taft Ballroom
Apr. 18 – Ann Arbor, MI – The Ark
Apr. 19 – Indianapolis, IN – The Vogue
Apr. 20 – Knoxville, TN – Bijou Theater
Apr. 22 – Charlotte, NC – Tuck Fest 2018
May 25 – Morrison, CO – Red Rocks Amphitheatre
May 27 – Cumberland, MD – DelFest 2018

Jeremy Bass’ The Greatest Fire

January 30, 2018

As I sit here with the sun shining on my face, sipping my peppermint tea, Jeremy Bass’ latest release, The Greatest Fire, gently caresses my ears. The well-orchestrated indie-pop/ alternative masterpiece is comprised of many moving parts. Each track contains a unique combination of the guitar, bass, percussion, brilliant background vocals, and an occasional appearance from instruments suited for a symphony. The album mellows out as it goes along–each song moving further away from its indie-pop beginnings.

The album starts off on a very chipper note. Both “CA, Plz” and “The Greatest Fire” feel very happy-go-lucky, in the best kind of way. “CA, Plz” begins with delightful acoustic guitar plucking, paired with soothing male background vocals “bababa”ing us into the album. Jeremy Bass’ voice soon enters in and the ode to a state (California) lifts off with synth sounds drifting us into the “ocean blue”. Female background vocals also provide support in the chorus and transition us into the next track.

The album’s first single, “The Greatest Fire,” echoes the chipperness of the first track with the great addition of keys layered into the guitar/percussion combination. The message of the track also seems very optimistic, yet grounded. The lyric, “Don’t you ever feel there’s a truth deeper than your point of view?” shows off that mixture well.

Unlike what the title of the next track may lead you to think, “(So Glad) Everyone’s Happy” is seeping with irony, as the repeated lyric “so glad everyone’s happy” seems more sardonic than authentic. Instead, the lyrics “I’m not ready to go” and “Breathe, breathe, breathe” seem to get at the heart of the track. Unlike the other songs, the bass guitar leads us through a playful arrangement of percussion, a beachy guitar, and Jeremy Bass’ steady vocals filling out the track.

“1,000 Yrs” and “‘Till the Summer Ends” both contain softer sets of instrumentation. “1,000 Yrs” is the cutesie love song on the album, with lyrics like “I wanna be here for a 1,000 years with you”. The violin-heavy instrumentation ensures the track’s romantic sound. Meanwhile “‘Till the Summer Ends” shows off Bass’ talented acoustic guitar playing. In general, this track’s sound is softer than the previous ones. Similar to Fleet Foxes, the soothing background vocals and instrumentation take the listener drift to a peaceful place.

“Halfway Sane”, “Trees for the Forest”, and “(theme music for a desert lightning storm)” continue to steer away from the chipper indie-pop sound that kickstarted the album. “Halfway Sane” does this through a certain edginess in its arrangement, with the help of a heavy use of the electric guitar. “(theme music for a desert lightning storm)” is the only instrumental track off the album. The acoustic guitar serves as its anchor, as percussive elements enter and exit as they please. The cyclical sound of the track seems to echo the pattern of a lightning storm, as the title suggests. And before you know it, the storm has passed and the track is over. “We Will Be You” brings the album to an eerie close, as it begins with a slowly played banjo, progresses with an organ, and ends with creaking wood floor sounds.

Before I close out my review of this masterful album, I must draw attention to the creative way Bass titled his tracks. From “CA, Plz” to “1,000 Yrs” and “(theme music for a desert lightning storm)”, his use of parentheses and text-speech are brilliant. The Greatest Fire is an album created for those of us who are tired of the same old indie-pop productions playing over and over again.–Krisann Janowitz

Premiere: Michelle Mandico’s “Ptarmigan”

January 25, 2018

Michelle Mandico‘s “Ptarmigan” is a testament to the elegance of simplicity, from the melody to the arrangement to the lyrics. The delicate, spacious folk song features Mandico’s pure and clear voice delivering a compellingly unadorned melody. Mandico doesn’t go for tricks or quirks; instead, she delivers with confidence a vocal performance that perfectly meshes with the guitar line.

That melancholy fingerpicked guitar line comprises a large chunk of the arrangement, as Mandico keeps the instruments to a minimum. An emotional fiddle enters a third of the way through the song, occasional acoustic guitar overdubs appear–and that’s the whole setup for the track. The power of the song comes not from its complexity, but from how well everything comes together into a full work.

The lyrics focus on stripped-down simplicity as well, although that simplicity isn’t always for the best; the simple statement of “and it’s funny how we need no words / when silence carries” is less optimistic when paired with the refrain of “I’m alone again.” But the refrain also includes “I’m a ptarmigan / in my mountain home”–being at home is good, but the home of the ptarmigan is very cold (the ptarmigan is the official bird of Canadian province Nunavut, otherwise known as the farthest northern part of Canada). So there’s complexity in the simplicity, too. Mandico’s tune is impressive, and establishes her as a newcomer to watch.

“Ptarmigan” drops tomorrow, Friday, January 26.



Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.

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