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.
1. “Father’s Day” – Butch Walker. Do you want to cry? Butch Walker’s gorgeous, vulnerable, powerful eulogy for his father will make it happen. This is masterful songwriting.
2. “Through the Night and Back Again” – Michael Malarkey. With the casual vocals of Josh Ritter, the smooth yet perky vibe of Alexi Murdoch, and a charm all his own, Malarkey is now one to watch.
3. “How You Should Be” – Ethan Jano. Here we have a country-rock hollerer with a Johnny Cash strum, train-track drums, and a twitchy overall mood. It’s exciting.
4. “So Let’s Go” – Alan Doyle. If Imagine Dragons decided to write a sea shanty folk tune with some Celtic vibes, we’d have this astonishingly chipper tune. This should be crushing radio right about now.
5. “Never Gonna Cry” – Ryan Culwell. Mmm, I just can’t get enough of that Southern Gothic, windswept troubadour, Jason Isbell stuff. Mmm, mmm, mmm.
6. “Juniper Blues” – Chris Jamison. Jamison sets a stately, hushed mood, getting emotional without getting histrionic. For all those fans of the dignified dive bar singer/songwriter who takes his job of offering the soundtrack for climbing into a tumbler of whiskey and sadness seriously.
7. “Monterey” – Grand Lake Islands. Rides the link between cerebral folk mysticism and dreamy beach-bum sunshine nostalgia with surprising ease.
8. “I Need a New Hymn” – Grant Valdes. The latest in Valdes’ settings of unpublished hymn-writer Haden Laas’ texts is a perky, quirky, breathy tune that calls to mind an optimistic Elliott Smith, if you can imagine tapping your toes to Smith’s work.
Problems That Fix Themselves – Which Is Worse. This electronic duo creates gently unfolding, melodic ambient/glitch music. They manage to make glitch not sound brittle and lifeless, especially on standout track “8:62.” Elsewhere they make circuitbending sound downright beautiful; this might be the easiest introduction to the technically and musically intimidating practice I’ve ever heard. It’s not ODESZA by any means, but fans of melodic post-dub will find connections they may not have expected.
Nate Allen and the Pac-Away Dots – Take Out the Trash. The wild songwriter behind the folk/punk duo Destroy Nate Allen! took a long, hard look at the ills of society. The subsequent musical and lyrical response was a bit darker and weightier than DNA! purveys, although the songs of Take Out the Trash still fit in the folk/punk category. Allen’s raspy voice is perfectly suited to righteous indignation, and so tunes like “West Side Blues” come together perfectly with impassioned vocals over brazen electric guitars. On the other end of the spectrum, gentler tunes like “Social Equality” aim an introspective lens at social justice with banjo, brushed drums, and acoustic guitar. It may make you laugh a bit less and think a bit more than DNA!, but the songwriting chops are just as strong (and in some places stronger) for the change in topic.
Kayte Grace — Chapter 2: Sail There EP. Kayte Grace’s country-folk-pop is a charming, romantic brew that will appeal to fans of Taylor Swift, Twin Forks, and young love. There’s infinite depth to be mined in young love, and Grace does that here, both melodically and lyrically. It’s smooth, sweet, but not too saccharine; if you’re swooning over someone right now, you’ll be all about it.
It’s been a wild and chaotic 2015 so far, as I’ve already logged two interstate trips. Amid the travel commitments, I’ve had the good pleasure of coming across the alt-country of Embleton. Kevin Embleton’s songwriting vehicle combines the poignant pedal steel of Mojave 3, the soaring arrangements of Dawes, and the ragged charm of Bright Eyes in the sentimental barn-burner “Leaving for Good.” The living eulogy for a close friend leaving the area floats along on a river of flaring horns and Embleton’s low, passionate vocals.
I usually post a video of the “I Have a Dream” speech on MLK Day, but this year I have a different King speech to post. Over the past year, I’ve been a part of a group of academics working to recreate King’s “A Creative Protest” speech, which is more commonly known as the “Fill Up the Jails” speech. You can listen to a voice actor performing the speech at our website.
May the vision of equality and peace that Dr. King proclaimed so fervently be realized here and now and soon and forever.
Writing a whole album for single instrument and voice is a deceptively difficult task. No orchestration, no ornamentation, nothing but the melody, the rhythm, and whatever counterpoint you can get your fingers (or your looper) to do; what could go wrong?
Well, lots. I’ve heard a bunch of albums that consist of the same three songs over and over. I’ve discovered how important a backing band is to some musicians. I’ve heard a lot of grating flaws that were charming in a previous context. All this makes me appreciate even half-decent attempts at true solo records that much more. Cameron Blake‘s Alone on the World Stage is that rare album which showcases diverse songwriting skills and loads of memorable melodies within a very constricted medium. Alone impressivelymakes guitar and voice seem like an endless, expansive orchard with good songs ripe for the picking.
It’s not just that the songs are all there; they all sound so easy. The rolling fingerpicking of lead single “North Dakota Oil” seems to effortlessly buoy Blake’s baritone musings about the latest American oil rush. The insistent strumming that supports tales of hard-luck life in “Detroit” sounds no less assured. The pensive sway of “The Fisherman,” the bouncy “Piccadilly Circus,” and the precise-yet-gentle arpeggios of “Ultrasound” all show other facets of the diamond. “Fragile Glory” closes the record not by rehashing the sonic content, but by summing it up beautifully in a tender, expressive performance. Blake didn’t phone in a single song here: deft, purposeful work went into each of these twelve tracks. The result is an album that showcases his vast instrumental songwriting abilities without getting repetitive.
His lyrical songwriting is as adroit as the guitar work. Despite the implied political ends of the title, the album covers a wide range of topics. “Welfare Street” follows up on the promise of some politics, but primarily by focusing on the plight of the people involved in the situation–“Detroit” can be read in the same way. “Fragile Glory” expands the widescreen lens even more, taking a look at the whole human condition (“Hallelujah! We are human.”). On the other end of the spectrum, “Ultrasound” is a very personal song about becoming a father. But even if the scope is turned outward or inward, these are songs that are generous, even affectionate, toward their subjects. Instead of taking a calculated, sneering, ironic stance that can come out in pictures of people in culture, there’s a kind undercurrent to the lyrics that courses through the tunes almost as persistently as the bass note rhythms.
It’s peculiar that the most moving song on the album is one of two written for piano and voice: “Home Movie” is a soaring, passionate treatment of what the liner notes call “old silent film music” with new vocals and lyrics. Blake’s consistently evocative vocals are especially well done here, as his baritone lends the song a dynamism that fits with the deeply affecting lyrics. It’s the sort of song that doesn’t appear that often; everything comes together in that one performance to show the heart of the song and the songwriter. It’s the best of what an instrument and a voice can do; it’s the track that allures and calls so many people to try this sort of thing.
Cameron Blake’s Alone on the World Stage sees him standing out from the pack of singer/songwriters with powerful songwriting, passionate lyrics, and intimate performances. Blake sets the bar high for this year of albums.
3. “Picture Picture” – Tall Tall Trees. Kishi Bashi contributed strings to this giddy, major-key alt-hip-hop/singer-songwriter’s tune. It’s pretty amazing.
4. “Billions of Eyes” – Lady Lamb the Beekeeper. Lady Lamb opens her sophomore campaign with a tour de force grower that moves toward indie-rock, away from the Neutral Milk Hotel-ish psych, and maintains the inscrutable, impressionistic lyrics she’s known for.
5. “Laurel Trees/21 Guns” – Jet Plane. The opening moments of this 10-minute post-rock piece mix fragile strings and bagpipes with grumbling guitar noise to set the scene. The rest of the tune is a leisurely unfolding track that follows that same pattern, albeit with more clean guitar.
6. “New Year’s Retribution” – More Than Skies. What if Tom Waits had played in a punk band and adopted modern folk arrangements to go along with it? This sad, pensive 8-minute track has twists and turns galore.
7. “Lo and Behold” – Sarah Marie Young. More and more people are picking up vintage vocal styles and combining them with modern instrumental styles. Young has a crooner’s voice added to some funky R&B bass and keys, making for a smooth, head-bobbing track.
8. “Pores” – Hand Sand Hand. “Rumbling” is what I call things that sound ferocious but never get a sharp, brittle edge. This post-punk track presses forward with all the power of a much heavier band and keeps me glued to my seat.
1. “Glass Heart” – Magic Giant. The rhythmic knowledge of a dance floor anthem powers this folk-pop jam. The inevitable whoa-ohs and jubilant trumpet line send this over the edge into “world-conquering pop song” mode. Seriously, this is like the best parts of the Lumineers and Mumford without the negatives.
2. “One More Song” – Tyler Hilton. Hilton imbues a lot of romantic intensity into his voice, layered neatly over an adult alternative tune that splits the difference between Taylor Swift and Matt Nathanson.
3. “Local News” – Heath McNeese. A simple acoustic fingerpicking pattern, a gentle voice, an endearing story, and a memorable melody: what else do you need? Beautiful singer/songwriter work here.
4. “All Along” – Joe Mansman and the Midnight Revival Band. Snare-shuffle country with evocative vocals, a soaring chorus, and a great vibe. Do I have to throw “alt” in front of country, or can I trust you to listen anyway?
5. “Alegria” – DBG. British folk singer/songwriter DBG went to Spain and interviewed people, then wrote a bunch of songs about those interviews–in Spanish. This one showcases his gentle fingerpicking along with the Spanish-language lyrics.
Sunmonks’ “In a Desert of Plenty” is the rare track that succeeds in interpreting the rhythm and mood of the song with the clip. Most entrancing is the sections where the director tracks the polyrhythmic backbeat with the erratic motion of feet. (You just have to watch it.)
I love a good animated clip, especially when it tells an interesting (if slightly inscrutable) story.
Lights and Motion is back with a new album and a new video! The video for “The Spectacular Quiet” follows previous videos in having absolutely brilliant cinematography scoring a narrative that takes some thinking about. (Also: quite spectacular; not very quiet.)
If you’re the sort of person that appreciates slowly-unfolding musical mood pieces, then you might also appreciate a three-part, 15-minute, slowly-unfolding video mood piece set to three Jesse Marchant songs. Not a lot happens in the 15 minutes in terms of action, but it’s really pretty cinematography.