It’s difficult to tell just from listening to “Closet” that John Vournakis‘ The Devil You Know is a debut solo album and a departure from his other bands (New Junk City, Gold-Bears). Even though he’s recorded EPs and singles over the years, “Closet” shows off unusual skills and confidence in delivering on the conventions of a genre without feeling the least bit trite.
Vournakis’ clear, passionate voice is perfectly at home in the acoustic folk/country environment, and the loping miss-you break-up tune displays a remarkable songwriting confidence.The treatment of the electric guitar and drums are particularly striking, as Vournakis creates a great amount of ethos and just the right amount of space for the vocals to take center stage without dominating the track. Those vocal melodies soar and simmer appropriately, evoking that feeling we all know of looking back at the one that got away. Vournakis understands the way this genre works, and that makes “Closet” sound like the confident, assured work of a much more mature singer/songwriter. Check it out below.
The Co Founder‘s Whiskey and 45’s is a raw, stripped-down acoustic offering that falls at the intersection of slowcore singer/songwriter vibes, rough-n-tumble country delivery, and alt-rock gruffness. The arrangements in the EP skew toward the sparse, but The Co Founder rarely lets things go totally acoustic. There’s a lot of atmosphere built into the five songs here, which serves to underscore (while helping create) the unique world these songs live in.
Hayden Eller’s vision of acoustic music is contained in the two opening tunes. “Balance and Composure” is a slow boat paddling, a lazy breeze over a brown-grass hill, a rolling pastoral that displays difficult emotions without poring over them. Elephant Micah would have been proud to write this one, aside from the muscly, guitar-chord-heavy chorus that provides a counterpoint to the gentle surroundings. If the verses are the composure, the chorus is the balance. “Yves St. Laurant” flips the script, focusing on the tough exterior; it’s raw, rough, and intense. It feels like a hollowed-out alt-rock song or an the sturdy skeleton of ominous alt-country tune. Yet quiet moments exist amid the brittle, powerful delivery. It’s a tension that Eller keeps at the forefront of his work.
That tension is pulled together with the subtle arrangement touches that help build the ambiance of the tunes. “Yves St. Laurant” includes clips of Heath Ledger as the Joker talking about morals, which is enough to make any song skin-crawling. It fits perfectly with the heavy delivery of the tune. The wide-open tom pounds that punctuate “Balance and Composure” point to the space and flow of the sound. Elsewhere, the distant lead guitar of “Harris Avenue” sends me to an empty street in an ominous, dusty frontier town; the background of “His Own Damn Self” is filled with found sound and pad synths. (Eller is aware of this; he includes an acoustic version of this one as the final track.) Closer “March 13th” includes indiscernible conversations for texture. Each element provides a pop of definition in the tunes, staking out remote and rare sonic territory for The Co Founder’s own.
Whiskey and 45’s is a pretty intense EP. Eller’s interests in minor keys, powerful delivery, and sonic texturing result in a collection that cuts against the current grain of easy-going folky tunes (that I love, it should be pointed out). Eller wrangles the striking sonic elements and the expectation inversions together with great success: the results display a distinct and memorable point of view. I’m intrigued to see how his songwriting voice develops and where his experiments with sonic texturing lead him.
1. “Sometimes It’s a Song” – Rob Williams. The fresh, round, earnest qualities of Williams’ voice match the subtle sweetness of the surrounding arrangement, resulting in the sort of song that feels real and weighty without being heavy or loud. It makes quite an impact.
2.”Heart of Stone” – The American West. This one captures the easygoing, lilting West Coast country sound in full flower, with the pedal steel more floating than weeping and the guitar more calming than cutting. The vocals and lyrics, however, supply all the heartbreak you could ask for from a country tune.
3. “Lovedrunk Desperados” – Annabelle’s Curse. That opening thumping kickdrum creates a sense of urgency that cuts through the banjo and acoustic guitar songwriting and lends it the hint of grandeur that compels me to keep listening. The rest of the song does not disappoint.
4. “Set on Fire” – Magic Giant. They’re not referencing their meteoric rise, but this rave-folk outfit (seriously, right there with Avicii, in only a slightly different way) is making a big noise in a lot of places. This particularly tune will keep their star right on rising.
5. “Mountains” – Andy Hackbarth. Even though its title says otherwise, this one invokes the beach: chill, Mraz-style acoustic-pop meets reggae in a sunshiny brew.
6. “Molly Put the Kettle On” – Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons. It doesn’t get much more authentic-sounding than this rootsy, bluegrassy croon/holler tune featuring harmonica, banjo, and fiddle.
7. “Mother” – Adam Busch. Touches of psychedelia flavor this otherwise unassuming, easygoing, fingerpicked acoustic tune.
8. “Lighthouse” – Phillip LaRue. The subtle alt-pop of Peter Bradley Adams meets the flitting, romantic strings of Sleeping at Last for a romantic, lovely tune.
9. “Cool and Refreshing” – Florist. Sporting another not-quite-yet-self-aware title, this tune delivers fragile, melancholic, beautiful indie-pop that really seems like it should be acoustic. Shades of Lady Lamb, Laura Stevenson, and Kimya Dawson appear, but Florist uses the references as touchstones instead of crutches. Just beautiful.
10. “Ein Berliner” – Jacob Metcalf. This tune has the gravitas to convey history in all its glory and terror–a tune so infused with lyrical weight that a single sigh can speak volumes. Distant trumpets, careful strings, twinkling glockenspiel and gentle baritone make this some sort of cross between Beirut and Kris Orlowski, which is only positive. Metcalf previously was in IC faves The Fox and The Bird, and it seems he hasn’t missed a step since stepping out.
If I were to describe Jenny Ritter’s breakout albumRaised by Wolvesin one word, it would have to be layering. Over and over again, I kept noticing the many magnificent layers to her music–the vocal, instrumental, and lyrical layering.
Let me begin by first painting a portrait of Jenny Ritter’s voice. To begin, think of Paramore’s Hayley Williams’ voice, particularly in her more delicate tracks, such as “The Only Exception.” The strong softness of Hayley Williams’ voice in those quieter songs are much like Jenny Ritter’s voice. Now add a more motherly, storytelling quality similar to many female ‘90s country artists, minus the country twang. There you have it–a beautiful sopranic voice that maintains both sweetness and strength. Many of the songs build off her crisp voice. Others have additional harmony vocals which serve to add depth (“A History of Happiness,” “Turn Your Thoughts”).
The instrumentation of Raised by Wolves is what made me fall in love with the album. There is so much instrumental layering, I almost can’t handle how amazing it is. Take “Turn Your Thoughts,” for example. In it, Ritter provides the vocal melody, while Keenan Lawler joins in to serve as the vocal harmony. The instruments can be described in those terms as well. “Turn Your Thoughts” opens up with the drums and acoustic guitar providing the melody. The electric guitar, fiddle, steel guitar, and banjo all fill out the sound through adding harmony. Sometimes this occured in the form of awesome breakout solos such as seen with the fiddle and electric guitar. The instrumentation is so great that it can stand all on its own, as proved by the instrumental track “Slide Mountain.” “Slide Mountain” has a slightly darker sound from the rest of the album because of the addition of the double bass, which adds a lot of depth to the sound. The instrumental layering creates a very full sound for all of the tracks on the album.
Jenny Ritter’s lyrics remind me of someone I once reviewed, Paul Doffing. Both artists focus heavily on nature and mankind’s relationship with nature. Take the single “Wolf Wife”: Ritter’s lyrics speak more depth than what is on the surface. She uses this metaphor of being a “wolf wife” because she was “raised by wolves,” yet there seems to be a larger commentary about family and societal expectations underneath the nature-focused lyrics.
“Remember the Life” is a beautiful song, and the lyrics are particularly majestic. At the song’s chorus, Ritter posits the first time around that “we should go out and see the stars right now.” The second time she says, “we should go out on the sea right now.” The third time she replaces the stars and sea with, “on the hill right now.” Each time the lyrics are followed up by “remember the life that we want to live.” Experiencing nature in a real way has a tendency to revitalize our life and remind us what it is really about.
In Raised by Wolves, Jenny Ritter reminds what life is all about– beauty.–Krisann Janowitz
The Band and the Beat‘s two-song single is a warm, lush blast. It’s a blast in the “blast of air” sense: the analog synths and drum machine create a surprisingly different atmosphere than the harsh digital synths I’m used to. (It’s also a blast in that it’s a lot of fun.) Even when the sound turns ominous, as it does about four and half minutes through the seven-minute runtime, the tune seems comforting. I keep wanting to say “warm blanket,” but gives short shrift to the tightly constructed arrangements and song structures. Freeflowing jams these are not, which is good–I’m not usually the guy trying to sell people on lengthy noodling (be it of the synth or guitar type).
No, “21” stays tight due to thoughtful songwriting and Tracy Tritten’s pristine vocals (of Tracy Shedd). Her soft alto/mezzo-soprano floats effortlessly over the seas of synths. Her voice is more playful in b-side “Buoy,” which fits with the lighter mood of the track. “Buoy” sounds like a lost Mates of State track, if they gave up the piano altogether and went full synth. It’s a friendly, smile-inducing song that features a bit of arpeggiated bass thump to break up the legato lines. “We were never meant to settle down,” Tritten claims, “Another trip and another town.” The song fits as a road song–perfect for the bit when the adrenaline of leaving has worn off and the enjoyment of the ride has set in.
“Get ready / suit up,” Tritten offers at the conclusion of “21,” and it’s a worthy mantra for the outfit as well as the listeners. I’m intrigued to hear more from The Band and the Beat, as their synth-pop is more than just cheery melodies. The complexity of the songwriting in “21” points towards strong offerings in the future.
If you’re in the Triangle of North Carolina, you’ll have a couple chances to see them live over the next week or so:
Nov 1. Durham. Duke Coffeehouse. w/ Free Pizza (Boston)
Nov 7. Chapel Hill. The Cave. w/ Tim Lee 3
Some tunes are slow burners, and others smack you in the face with their immediacy. Valley Shine‘s “See You Soon” is the latter: the verse melody is so infectious, carefully delivered, and beautifully arranged that it gave me goosebumps on first listen.
The band marries delicate folk-pop with joyous indie-pop with such skill that it seems obvious, which is the first sign that there are a lot of non-obvious things going on. Digging into the song reveals sonic and structural complexity, from the many melodic lines the vocals deliver to the delicate balance of intimacy vs. oversharing in the lyrics (they fall on the former side, of course). The overall effect of the tune is remarkable: it’s the sort of thing that you want to play for everyone you know; that soundtracks the joyful conclusion of indie movies; that rolls your windows down almost of its own accord. It’s a powerful tune, but it’s also not trying to hard to be that. These are the sort of songs that I started this blog to cover: songs I can’t stop thinking about. Cheers, Valley Shine.
The tune comes off their upcoming Loca EP, which is just as gush-worthy as “See You Soon.” “To the Sea” presents a different side of Valley Shine’s sound: one that does reach for the epic sweep. The broad, wide-open sound evokes big emotions but stays grounded (through great banjo use!) in it all. It’s reminiscent of the Oh Hellos or Jenny and Tyler’s work. The delicate “If I Was a Bird” strips out the indie-pop affectation and reveals the oh-so-satisfying shuffle-snare country/folk roots of their sound (they even throw in some Simon & Garfunkel, “The Boxer”-esque booms, to prove bonafides).
Jenna Blake leads the song, with Sam Sobelman providing the harmonies. The two switch off throughout the EP, with Sobelman taking the reins for the Beatles-esque opener “Sugar Dream” and “See You Soon” and Blake taking the darker “Don’t Let It Slip Away.” “To the Sea,” naturally, has both of their vocals together in a choir-esque arrangement. It’s like if Fleet Foxes got really, really stoked about something, or maybe if they met the Polyphonic Spree.
I can’t talk about Loca without returning to the term “immediate.” Everything about the five songs here just jumps off the page and demands your attention. They have diverse arrangments, generic range, varied vocalists, and impeccable melodicism. Valley Shine sounds like a band that has been around a lot longer than it has: they’ve created the sorts of songs that can hold up for a long time. This should be the start of something big for Valley Shine. Highly recommended.
Nashville folk/indie-pop outfit Pageant‘s latest single “Don’t Stop the Rain” gets pretty literal in its accompanying clip, surveying the varied lives and meanings of water in our world and culture. It’s enough to make a Californian faint.
The song itself is a jaunty duet that draws heavily on indie-pop and folk conventions without falling neatly into either category. The vocals are the feature here, with Derek and Erika Porter’s voices intertwining throughout the tune as leads and backup vocals. There’s some pedal steel and harmonica to counter the vocal focus, while the bass guitar does some admirable work keeping the tune traveling sprightly on. The overall effect is close to the full-band vibes that Creedence Clearwater Revival put out–which is appropriate, as Derek Porter mentioned the band’s work as a major touchpoint. His full comments, which he graciously penned for us:
“I love CCR’s “Who’ll Stop the Rain” and the mystical, open-ended lyrics of the track, and I always heard it as an anti-war, anti-government protest song at its heart. I wanted to take that idea even further and make the lyrics more universal and removed from the point of view and period of time in which it was originally written, so I wrote “Don’t Stop the Rain” as a direct response, playing devil’s advocate. Pageant’s song doesn’t have a clear message but is more of a free spirited thought exercise — overall, I enjoyed the poetry of the original and riffed on it.”
The Gray Havens are back with a new Kickstarter project! The folk-pop duo is creating a new EP with Ben Shive, who has worked with Andrew Peterson, Ellie Holcomb, and IC faves Colony House and Son of Laughter. Shive seems to always turn out earthy, “real”-sounding recordings; paired with the Gray Havens’ dramatic, tension-filled songwriting, the results should be impressive. Check their video below.
1. “Sync” – Cloud Castle Lake. If Sigur Ros ate a marching band and a prog rock outfit, they still probably couldn’t make this genre-exploding post-rock track. This is some of the most eclectic, beautiful songwriting I’ve heard in a long time.
2. “L.A.M.P.” – A.M. Stations. If you’re on the train that post-rock doesn’t have enough of punk’s energy, then this pounding instrumental track will leave you clapping.
3. “Blood Mirage” – Crown Larks. If you’re concerned that post-rock isn’t weird enough, then Crown Larks’ fractured, wild, sprawling tunes will comfort you. This is one of those bands where you feel bad for all the instruments involved because of the intense, atypical sounds being wrung out of the poor pieces of metal, wire, wood and cork.
4. “Steady Waves” – Cross Record. Pensive and dark, gentle and harsh, like Bowerbirds on an electro bender (even though it feels like these may be all organic instruments manipulated in unusual ways).
5. “Open Season” – Youth Model. Muse would be proud of the move to layer a 1950s PSA about the atomic bomb over the intro to this dark, theatrical rock song about paranoia. Actually, Muse would be proud of pretty much everything in this song.
6. “Coshh” – The Vryll Society. Here’s a highway song for a cosmic, religious, post-consciousness realm.
7. “Take My Hand” – Palmas. And if you go surfing in that cosmic, religious, post-consciousness realm, you can flip on this perfect soundtrack.
8. “Golden Lion” – The Besnard Lakes. ’70s rock’n’roll updated to sound tight and modern, but with just enough guitar haziness to be a little reality-fuzzing.
9. “One Block Bar” – Rett Smith. Here’s some electric blues that don’t sound like The Black Keys. The gritty, urgent noise here is much more earthy and raw than the stadium-rockin’ Keys.
10. “Bruises” – Bells and Hunters. Do you need a stomping, riff-heavy rock track in your life? Of course you do, especially if it has great female vocals on top of all that.
1. “Run With Me” – Heather LaRose. A great pop song that has that Imagine Dragons / Magic Giant / Lumineers type of enthusiasm tinged with minor-key drama. You’ll be humming this one.
2. “New Minuits” – Tri-State. This low-slung rock tune escaped from some preternaturally chill realm: it’s smart, cool, moody, lyrically clever and vocally impressive without breaking a sweat.
3. “Nothing to Say” – WOOF. THAT BASS LINE. (Also, this a burbling, frenetic, arpeggiator-decorated mid-’00s indie-pop-rock tune. Tokyo Police Club would be proud.) SERIOUSLY THOUGH. THAT BASS.
4. “Take Me To a Party” – Sweet Spirit. “I’ve got a broken heart / so take me to a party” hollers the lead female vocalist over energetic, fractured rock music that sounds suitably unhinged.
5. “Corduroy” – Redcast. Gosh, there’s just something irresistible about a fresh-faced, clean-scrubbed pop-rock group with equal parts Beatles, twee indie-pop, and The Cars references.
6. “Soldiers” – Swim Season. Everything about this track makes way more success when you realize that it’s about to be summer in the band’s native Australia. This summery electro-rock jam slinks, sways and swaggers its way into your ears.
7. “Movies” – Captain Kudzu. Meticulous slacker pop seems like a paradox, but Captain Kudzu’s carefully crafted tune here sounds excellently like it’s not trying too hard. Foresty, moody vibes track with the easiness, making it an intriguing song.
8. “Captive” – WYLDR. Temper Trap + Passion Pit + a dash of Colony House = radio gold.
9. “Every Day” – Dream Culture. Here’s a funky psych-rock nugget with one foot firmly in the ’70s and one in outer space. The tension between grounded riffing and free-floating atmosphere pulls at each other in all the right ways.
10. “Hey Little League” – Michael Daughtry. John Mayer’s suave alt-pop touch collides with some tight ’90s pop-rock vibes to turn out this tune.
11. “Time to Share” – Model Village. Grows from a delicate pop tune to a surprising, swirling post-disco tune without ever losing a gentle touch.
12. “You Have Saved Our Lives, We Are Eternally Grateful” – Wovoka Gentle. Chiming voices float over shape-shifting synths, bouncy guitars, and an overall joyous mood. It’s kind of like a female-fronted Freelance Whales, only weirder in the best possible way.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.