Adam Stafford‘s Fire Behind the Curtain is a highly eclectic instrumental work, combining elements of mid-century minimalist melodic patterning, contemporary ambient work, soundtrack scoring, and whimsy into one kaleidoscopic neo-classical work. I like all of those elements individually, so it’s no shock that I really like this album as a unit.
I mention a kaleidoscope because while Stafford does have a few pieces that show his whole composing vision (standouts “An Abacus Designed to Calculate Infinity,” “The Witch Hunt”), the majority of the works here show off one aspect of his ideas each. The delicate-yet-frenetic, patterned melodies and counter-melodies of “Zero Disruption” point to his affinity for mid-century minimalism. “Sails Cutting Through an Autumn Night” is as narrative and soundtrack-oriented as you would expect from the title. “Holographic Tulsa Mezzanine” is an sort-of ambient/chillwave/undefinable track built off churning, chopped synths.
There are moments where his ideas crash into each other: the amazing “Penshaw Monument” is a dense, minimalist, nearly-11-minute composition created almost entirely of beatboxing, singing, and yelling. The tone of the song is not as whimsical as the whistling over the thickly layered composition of “An Abacus Designed to Calculate Infinity”, but conceptually the song is highly whimsical (“What if I had 11 minutes of beatboxing?”). 10-minute closer “I Dreamed I Was a Murderer” fuses a highly ambient, textural opening with long woodwind notes for an experimental neo-classical experience. (If you’re into Michael Gordon’s work, you’ll be into this piece.)
Fire Behind the Curtain is its strength. This album has ideas just exploding from everywhere. Fans of adventurous, gleefully genre-mashing instrumental music will find much to love in this wild experience.
If you stick around in the music reviewing game long enough, you get to see whole long swaths of people’s careers. I’ve been covering TJ Foster’s work with Accents and then Darling Valley since 2012, and Ryan Hutchens’ work as Cancellieri since 2014. Both of the songwriters have new releases out under their own names. Both of the albums are highly retrospective releases, giving a glimpse into what was happening personally over the last few years that I’ve known them professionally.
TJ Foster‘s First Person, Volume Onecontains tracks like “An Ode to My Twenties” (self-explanatory) and “The Basement,” which details his changing relationship throughout his life to a sanctum of sorts. Both of these songs touch on his parents’ divorce, which is one of many personal events that he’s sorting out in this record.
Given that content, the tone of the record is very sad: there’s a romantic nobility in facing sadness with dignity, and Foster is trying to walk that path. Standout opener “I Don’t Know” sets the tone that pervades almost every track, as Foster sets gloriously-executed multi-tracked vocal harmony over a solemn fingerpicked guitar melody. The song closes with as good a thesis statement as you can get for a sort-through-the-past album: “Am I a sucker for sadness, or is it one for me? / Am I losing my grip on some reality? / I don’t know / I don’t know.” It’s an excellent song.
Elsewhere “Brokenfine” adds solid piano, allowing for even more gravitas. “An Ode to My Twenties” is an upbeat major-key folk tune complete with harmonica–it’s one of the few moments of sunshine sonically, even if the lyrics are still (mostly) in line with the rest of the record. “What If” is a slightly dreamy take on folk, while “57” is a quiet tune built off another lovely finger-picking-and-vocals core. First Person, Volume One is a specific, personal record that could hit someone doing a re-evaluation of their 20s square in the numbers.
Ryan Hutchens‘ The Last Ten Yearsis retrospective in several ways; the record has a lyrical cast looking back on the last decade, while also re-recording some tunes previously released as Cancellieri. For someone who’s been following his work for a while, it’s nice to hear some songs that are like old friends (“Fortunate Peace” in particular).
The sonic vibe is not overtly sad–opener “Green My Eyes” has a gently adventurous arrangement that sounds like a Freelance Whales track, what with the complex patterning of banjo and guitar melodies laid against subtle drone-like element (in this case piano and distant guitar chords). It’s a warm, inviting track, welcoming you into the record. Hutchens loves calm, peaceful arrangements, and even this complex one has an overall feeling of relaxation.
Right after that track comes the title track of the record, which sets a tone lyrically–there’s a sense of loss and even bitterness in these tracks. The loss is especially raw in “The Trouble With You”. There’s some unrequited love spread throughout the record, some re-evaluation of a working-musician’s career trajectory (“The Landing”), and some consideration of loneliness and death (“Poor Old Man,” “The Landing” again).
But even “The Landing,” the lyrical core of the very sad lyrical set, is a major key folk shuffle with lazy pedal steel evoking Hawaiian vibes. If you’re the sort that listens to the vibe instead of the lyrics, this record will have a completely different feel for you than if you’re one who scrutinizes the words. Yet the dichotomy isn’t as terribly jarring as it sounds on paper, because Hutchens’ voice contains all manner of emotions throughout the tunes–his vocal performances hold the two pieces of the record together. If you’re into peaceful singer/songwriter records with strong arrangements and/or difficult lyrics, you’ll be into The Last Ten Years.
Marshall McLuhan is known for saying “The medium is the message,” but one of his lesser-known statements is that the content of any new medium is a remediation of the old medium. He was working at the time when television was emerging as a new medium, and so he argued that the content of television was largely content from radio (which, if you look at the early days of television, was true). We’re now firmly ensconced in the popular maturation of the digital medium, and so it would follow that the content of the digital medium is a remediation of the television that came before it. (Hello, YouTube.)
However, as a medium develops, creators become more familiar with and comfortable with the things that a medium can do. These creators then start to make things unique to the medium. (These “unique to the medium” things become the stuff remediated when the next media comes around.)
Darlingside‘s Extralifeis a remediation of the folk tradition in a digital milieu, with the content of “digital music” being a reframing and reshaping of the old content (folk music). Darlingside isn’t the first to combine folk and electronics (folktronica is a whole genre unto itself). However, society has advanced through time, and digital-influenced folk has matured to a point where Darlingside’s work feels less like a quirky outlier or early-adopter noodling and more like an accurate descriptor of the present moment. Add in lyrics that span the distance from pastoral reminiscent to fears about the end of time, and you’ve got something that nails the ethos of our era just about as well as OK Computer nailed its time.
The first thing to note here is not the digital work, but the thick, multi-tracked vocals that evoke Fleet Foxes, The Oh Hellos, or the Collection in approach. These feel spot-on; they lend a we’re-all-in-this-together vibe to the tracks. The vocal melodies are solid throughout, from the wide-eyed “Extralife” to the soaring “Singularity” to the Paul Simon-esque verses of “Futures.” You can sing along to this record, just like you can with any good folk record.
The arrangements surrounding those vocals explore a specific range of territory: these tracks are often minor-key, but not grim; filled with lush atmospheres, but not necessarily “warm” in the way of The Low Anthem. Instead, there’s a density to the arrangement of each of the tracks that gives them gravitas without robbing them of human connection. “Hold Your Head Up High” displays this tension perfectly; there’s some Bon Iver-level arch iciness filled in/contrasted with mournful trumpet and accordion. There’s a bit of an autotune edge on the vocals, again evoking Bon Iver–but the lyrics are optimistic and the vocal melodies tend to follow (in a way).
This tension between minor and major, between optimistic and sad, is extended in the digital aspects of the record. Opener “Extralife” opens with what sounds like sharpened, manipulated violins, then gives way to a patient arpeggiator as the basis of the track. What sounds like accordion (maybe it’s a synth?) comes in over it, smoothing out the rhythms of the arpeggiator. An acoustic guitar eases its way in on top, with the lyrics weaving video game concepts and metaphors through all that. The digital is part of everything, not a gimmick or a cheat code, but a part of how they write.
Nowhere is this more prevalent than in standout “Eschaton,” which also starts out with a perky arpeggiator and delightfully droning counterpoint. But from that beginning, the song expands into a punchy, full-throated indie-rock track, complete with Paul Simon-esque lyrics like “They’re making martyrs out of tennis stars / did you think they were ours?” The digital (the arpeggiator goes slightly bonkers), the acoustic (that cello line is wonderful), and the vocal all blend together beautifully.
It’s not all the digital future: “Old Friend” includes flutes in a pastoral setting, “Lindisfarne” is as close as they get to a Fleet Foxes song, and “The Rabbit and the Pointed Gun” feels like a latter-day Iron and Wine idea. But these are all placed in the context of album that opens with “Extralife” and closes with the enthusiastic “Best of the Best Times,” which sounds like a cross between ELO (those futurists) and a folk vocal performance with failing machine sounds thrown in. It is a major key song about sadness, which sets it apart from the record in some regards; however, the sonic threads that Darlingside cultivates through the rest of the record all come to bear here, creating a thoroughly satisfying conclusion to the record.
This is a big record that aims high–they shoot for a lot, and they hit most of it. Those big ambitions pay off. This is a folk record that looks backwards and forwards, creating an excellent record that sounds very contemporary. Yet it’s contemporary in the way that can stand–it’s more a stake in the ground than a trend-following ephemeral piece. This is fantastic work. Highly recommended.
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.
1. “Dylan Thomas / Bitter Bitter” – The Duke of Norfolk. A Dylan Thomas spoken word clip opens the gates of this track onto a field of wavering strings, distant vocals, gentle percussion, sea waves, and beautiful guitar melodies. It’s a very hopeful scene that gets only more so with the addition of subtle arpeggiator bleeps and a ramped-up tempo. The hope and warm enthusiasm of the track contrast with the lyrics, which are about coming to grips with death of loved one. It’s a statement track, for certain, and it’s a great stake to stick in the ground. Highly recommended. (Full Disclosure: I gave feedback on a pre-mastered version of this track.)
2. “Heat” – Kira May. Well, this is something new and different. There’s some ambient vibes to start the track; a lot of thick, manipulated vocals (think Imogen Heap); engaging “lead bass” work; and a strong, direct vocal performance on top of all of that via May. All of that runs slinky pop vibes (a la Dido) through an art-school filter (a la Talking Heads) to turn up something exciting and unusual. Highly Recommended.
3. “From Osaka, With Love” – Mixtaped Monk. This totally chill instrumental track manages to create the relaxing, soothing vibes of ambient music without losing the sense of forward motion. Gentle electric guitar, intriguing melodic percussion noises, and the oh-so-rare effective use of a slow sweeping/phasing effect on the synths. The addition of full kit percussion adds some post-rock panache, which gives the track heft.
4. “Walkin’ Through” – Emilie Mover. This hushed, intimate folk tune doesn’t walk so much as leisurely float. Mover’s beautiful voice unspools careful melodies over a gently pulsing fingerpicking pattern on a nylon-string guitar. There are crickets in the background, suggesting that Mover is out in a forest near a pond, perhaps, living the romantic life of nature. All in all, a lovely track.
5. “Fake Out” – MUNROE. This is a piano ballad, but it’s not maudlin, campy, overextended, or overstuffed. It features a deeply affecting vocal performance, an insistent piano arrangement, and vocal melodies that are hard to get out of my head. If only all piano work could be this earnest, affecting, and strong.
6. “Shelter” – Stephen Karl & Handsome Animals. I was listening to John K. Samson’s excellent work yesterday. I found myself discussing with my wife that, despite 15 years of listening to new music almost every day, there are some artists that have the X factor (my wife called it “umami“) that can transcend a standard form in an almost indiscernable, indescribable way. Stephen Karl’s work has that umami quality–this is a folk/country tune with train-track percussion, weeping pedal steel, and a baritone vocal performance. Nothing of the piece jumps out as the thing that makes the track great, but every piece contributes to making this song a cut above the rest of the pack doing much the same type of work. Good job, Stephen Karl & Handsome Animals.
7. “Oh Honey” – Neighbor Lady. I can say, “Filters the best of ’50s pop vibes through chill ’90s low-key Britpop and contemporary indie-pop with a dash of punk rock attitude in the vocal performance” or I can say, “This is the sort of song that ends up on so many of your playlists and mix CDs that you start giving this song to people multiple times, unapologetically.”
8. “The Balance” – Tenderfoot. Put The Antlers, The National, and Alt-J in a blender and this smooth, assured indie track might just come out. The way all the elements (strings, vocals, drums, bass, guitars) come together into a single, slicked-back unit is impressive.
9. “The Future” – BAILEY. Here’s a chipper, major-key folk-pop tune that reminds me of Bronze Radio Return and the quieter moments of Magic Giant. The inclusion of keys and whistling is a lot of fun, adding to the good vibes coming from the base arrangement, vocal performance, and lyrics.
10. “Stay” – The Drew Thomson Foundation. This is ’90s-style alt-country (do we still say country-punk?) that has all the charge of a rock song with juuuuust enough country to keep it fresh. The punchy vocal performance and the yearning lyrics are icing on the songwriting cake.
11. “Got It Cheap” – Tom West. This tune makes genre distinctions meaningless: there’s a banjo, some sort of saxophone, horns, some crunchy electric guitar, walking speed tempos, and mournful (yet still catchy) vocals. It’s a pop song of some sort, maybe, but whatever it is, it sounds really “in the pocket.” One that’s worth repeating, for sure.
12. “Doughnuts Forever” – The Orb. Downtempo electronica with trip-hop influences, tropical vibes, and a total sense of cool running through the whole thing. Very polished from this veteran outfit.
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. “Growing Up” – Moon Hooch. I am a big fan of sci-fi in addition to being a big indie music fan, and so I was thoroughly interested in the high-concept animated video that Moon Hooch put together for their latest single. It’s got a lot of concepts that I love: the possibility of time repeating itself, unusual alien/fantasy beings (or humans dressed as them), magic/superpowers, and more. Totally rad. The song itself is classic Moon Hooch: two saxophones dueling it out over dance-rock-oriented drums. The melodies are clever, thoughtful, and fun. It’s hard for me to listen to Moon Hooch without getting totally amped up, because these guys are distilled adrenaline.
2. “Dubai” – Royal. This slice of instrumental hip-hop employs distant spoken and sung vocals to great effect, helping set the mood effectively. The manipulation of the synths and the inclusion of the beats is also ace, as I find myself head-bobbing without thinking about it. Solid.
3. “Sharalee” – Jamison Isaak. Being a huge Teen Daze fan and a person-with-strongly-growing-interest-in-neoclassical-work, I am totally thrilled that Jamison did me a favor and combined the two. This Teen Daze side project takes all of the slowly unfolding melodies and carefully-curated atmosphere that makes his chillwave so great and applies it to classical work. The method is piano, pedal steel guitar, and pad synth–sounds very weird, but it makes perfect sonic sense when you hear it. (As you might expect, from someone who has a ton of experience with melody, arrangement and mood.) It’s pensive, winsome, and elegant. Highly recommended.
4. “Airlocks” – Floating in Space. Rarely does a band name so well describe the experience of listening to a band. Floating in Space creates major-key, wide-screen post-rock that’s reminiscent of Sigur Ros’ work in its sweep and in the vocalist’s tone. The lack of percussion and the glittering pad synths in this piece creates the truly floating feel.
5. “Disenchantment for Truth” – Sleeping Horses. Anyone tracking IC over a long period of time has seen more and more ambient work creep in around the edges of our coverage. I’ve been really enjoying the peacefulness of much ambient work, as well as the generally extended scale on which the sounds can develop. This is a perfect example of the type of thing I’ve been digging: Sleeping Horses creates a slowly-developing piece out of manipulated guitar sound, deliberate fluttering strings and lots of space. The small changes to the arrangement build up over the course of the piece to create a beautiful, emotive landscape.
Throwing down two albums in two years is no small feat. With Where the Wildest Spirits Fly, The Pinkerton Raid manages to drop a new record only 15 months after their previous effort Tolerance Ends, Love Begins. Where Tolerance Ends was a dense, dusky affair that analyzed a divorce in great detail, Wildest is heading in a different direction entirely, both lyrically and sonically.
“Jefferson Davis Highway” is the lead single off Wildest and it turns its focus directly on those who still celebrate the Confederacy. It’s a delicate, touchy subject nationally and in the South. But being from North Carolina (where the topic goes on and on), Jesse James DeConto jumps into the fray with no holds barred–his lyrical efforts leave little room for confusion about what this protest song is protesting.
Amid the lyrics protesting the continued support for Confederate history and ideals, DeConto mentions “We’re singing in God’s own country,” which is an interesting (intended or unintended) connection to U2’s The Joshua Tree. The music here is much more acoustic-oriented than previous work from TPR, but it’s still not quite Woody Guthrie’s folk. The connections are stronger to the expansive, vaulted work that U2 created on their seminal album, and not just because DeConto’s soaring, occasionally-yelping voice is reminiscent of Bono’s. The whole arrangement of the track is one that evokes gravitas without being overly somber. A marching band appears at the end of the track, lending even more grandeur.
It’s a big, bold, gutsy move to introduce an album with these lyrics and this arrangement. It’s a strong offering if you’re into protest music, U2, or folk music (writ large).
Where the Wildest Spirits Fly, which is the band’s fourth full length, will be released on Tuesday, May 1. You can pre-order it at Bandcamp. Catch the band in and around the Carolinas soon:
Saturday, April 28 – Brewgaloo – Raleigh, NC
Thursday, May 3 – North Charleston Arts Festival – North Charleston, SC
Friday, May 4 – Petra’s – Charlotte, NC
Saturday, May 5 – Cat’s Cradle (record release show) – Carrboro, NC
1. “The Sky Exhaled” – Luke De-Sciscio. This 11-minute piece is remarkable in several ways. First, the piece (which has two movements) is really 11 minutes long. Second, the flowing, tumbling fingerpicking, lithe vocals, and hushed mood remind me at times of Jose Gonzalez and early Iron and Wine. Third, the piece is accompanied by an 11-minute hand-drawn video. It’s a beautiful piece of work, with careful lines and a shading style that evokes intimacy. It’s truly impressive. Highly recommended.
2. “Can’t Cut Loose” – Erin Rae. A loping, lightly country-inflected, ’70s-vintage folk tune led by Rae’s excellent vocals. Her performance is mesmerizing–it’s the whole show here for most of the song. You get high marks for a voice that can captivate an audience like that.
3. “Adelaide” – Strangers by Accident. The NPR Tiny Desk Contest has been a boon for people who love stripped-down versions of tunes and/or concerts in weird places. This particular contest application from Strangers by Accident sees the quartet plying their wares while stranded in a blizzard. You’d never know of their distress without the notes saying so, however, as their crisp, tight folk tune shows no signs of concern. The vocal harmonies are tight, the arrangement is solid, and the song comes off like a dream. The video itself, however, has humorous issues. Good times had by all!
4. “Get Your House In Order” – John Calvin Abney. Somehow manages to make the most standard country template in the country vernacular a. not sound all that country b. reflect a distinctly John Calvin Abney-ish songwriting perspective in the vocal lines c. be relaxing instead of kitschy. I’m super impressed. (Full disclosure: John once engineered part of a record I wrote.)
5. “Elephant Heart” – Elizabeth Gundersen. Gundersen elevates the singer/songwriter staples of a stripped-down piano ballad and a breakup to impressive heights–no matter how tired you are of hearing about love lost, this song is deeply compelling lyrically and vocally.
6. “Greater Charlotte” – Michael Flynn. Double whammy! This poignant, heartbroken piano tune evokes the best moments of Ben Folds Five out of nothing more than a clever piano part, some strings for emphasis, and Flynn’s utterly compelling voice. This is an impressive, mature cut that makes me very interested in the upcoming release.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.