1. “Hollow” – Musketeer. Control of line length is a very fine skill that is deeply under-appreaciated when thinking about what makes a song good. But Musketeer’s careful control of where words start and end, how many syllables get in a line, and how long each syllable should be held give this a very distinct air. His lovely vocal tone and deft, airy arrangement help as well, but it’s those vocal lines that make this the excellent track it is.
2. “Blue” – Ziegler Co. The glockenspiel (kalimba? so hard to tell sometimes) that opens this track sets the stage for a beautiful back-porch rumination that I could listen to on loop for a very long time.
3. “Marjorie” – Reddening West. The almost-reverent, elegaic arrangement to this folk tune creates a gorgeous frame for mournful vocals. Fans of Blind Pilot and The Low Anthem should latch on.
4. “Beggar Woman” – Eden Hana. Hana makes dusky, soulful magic here with nothing but two female vocalists and a banjo.
5. “Tall Towers” – Wolfcryer. Matt Baumann’s baritone and incredible way with melodies make him one of my favorite troubadour-style folk singers. Wolfcryer will donate all the proceeds from this particular political tune to the ACLU.
6. “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” – Hayde Bluegrass Orchestra. This is a moving, arresting version of the traditional spiritual. The non-traditional part: Hayde Bluegrass Orchestra is from Norway.
7. “Waltz” – Andrea Silva. The vocal tone and performance here grab me and don’t let go for the duration of the four-minute singer/songwriter tune.
8. “Dalliance” – Ziegler Co. Impressive three-part harmonies give this good-natured acoustic track a sunshiny cast.
9. “Dance Dance” – No Ninja Am I. Somewhere between the forlorn serenity of Sufjan’s Michigan, the mystical side of Simon and Garfunkel, and the William Fitzsimmons’ subtle depths of emotion lies this beautiful track.
10. “New York” – Passing Pines. I love a good brushed snare, and that particular percussion style underpins a rolling, expansive, pastoral folk track. It sounds like a peaceful walk through a breezy, bright forest. (Not the dark, thick ones of Fleet Foxes tracks.)
11. “Alice” – Timid, the Brave. Some songwriters know how to combine a vocal melody, an arrangement, and production job to create maximum gravitas. This mature, fully-realized folk mosey makes me feel like Timid, the Brave could be a great opener on a The Barr Brothers, Josh Ritter, and Alexi Murdoch super-tour. Check the lovely, distant trumpet.
1. “Holy Moly” – The Forgotten Man. This super-charged indie-rock tune has the whoa-ohs of street punk, the thrashing drums of a rock band, and country touches in the vocals. Yet there remains an overall sense that this could have been a folk tune at one point, albeit in a slower tempo. It’s a blast to hear lead singer Wilson Getchell belt out, “HOOOO-lllly MOOOO-llllyyyyy” in the chorus.
2. “Spring” – The Shifts. Manages to bring together the “bum-bum-da-da-da”s of indie-pop, the melancholy arrangements of minor-key indie-rock and the fury of post-rock vocals together into one eclectic, electrifying, impressive whole.
3. “Bravo Sierra” – Glories. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel to make it work really well: here’s some Explosions in the Sky-style, controlled-chaos post-rock, complete with thrashing drums, soaring guitar leads, crunchy distortion, and memorable melodies you can hum along to.
4. “Sea Six” – Datura Daydream. This nearly-nine-minute journey starts off a post-rock piece, then transitions into a driving rock piece with classic-rock tones in the guitar; the murky, distant, heavily reverbed vocals add more texture. The bass then gets in on the action with a bass solo. Then it’s back to post-rock guitar screaming, followed up by some more rock, then some post-metal. Radness.
5. “Thunderbolts I Scatter” – The Angelus. The tag on the Angelus’ work is “Dark Hymnal Slowcore,” which sort of gets at the spirit of the thing, if not the sonics of it. The Angelus is equal parts post-rock (in stormy instrumental fury) and indie rock (via Emil Rapstine’s Nick Cave-esque, occasionally apocalyptic howl and some slightly dialed-back instrumentals in places). This particular track is a furious, ominous, thrashing instrumental that’s almost post-metal in its approach. Fans of Russian Circles will find much to love throughout the record, but especially here.
6. “Deep Blue Heart” – Solhund. This tightly arranged, carefully engineered instrumental track has “movie soundtrack” written all over it, from the pulsing synths/percussion mix to the dramatic string section.
7. “Obsessed” – The Co-Founder. Here’s a crunchy emo/indie-rock tune featuring complex instrumental interplay in the verses, leading into a chorus of churning drums and roiling guitars. Strong, emotive vocals layer on throughout.
8. “Cross” – AB7VN. The cascading strings, thrumming bass, and syncopated drumming make for one of an air of cool all throughout this instrumental piece. Could easily pass for the soundtrack to a really intense section of a dungeon-crawling RPG.
9. “Encore” – Roast Apple. Right when I’d given up on dance-oriented, Interpol-esque post-punk giving me a thrill, Roast Apple come along with tight melodies, slick production, and an attitude of cool. It might get harder to get the gold out of a well-tapped vein, but the best can still do it.
10. “Mexican Jackpot” – Flagship. A tight, focused, lightly-dancy indie-rock song with connections to Capital Cities’ and Cold War Kids’ sonic spaces.
1. “Outlandish Poetica” – Jonathan Something. A wild, whirling track that takes bits of Pavement slacker rock, lo-fi enthusiasm, kitchen sink-arrangement, and mystical/religious fervor and blends them into something unclassifiable. Also, Larry Bird is involved. Not kidding.
2. “Jungle – Saint Mesa. Starts off as a deconstructed electro-pop song and slowly edits all the missing parts back in until it’s just a big, towering, Bastille x ODESZA jam. Whoa now.
3. “Unsymmetrical” – Eli Raybon. A spitfire vocal attack and groove-heavy bass anchor this deconstructed post-punk/indie-rock blitz.
4. “Dear Abby” – Rees Finley. This song operates exactly in the space where indie-pop meets pop-punk, which is an area where Relient K and Say Anything have spent a lot of time. The vocal and instrumental melodies are infectious.
5. “Big Deceiver” – Foresteater. Fans of twee indie-pop with full-band arrangements (like It’s a King Thing) will find much to love in the distinctly charming vocal style, twinkling guitars, and warm background vocals.
6. “The Shield” – Syntax Club. They hail from Oklahoma and have the least tropical name I’ve ever heard, but this outfit has the reverb-heavy, super-laid-back, beach-friendly indie-pop thing on lock. The earnestness with which it is all pulled off keeps them just shy of yacht rock. And that’s a great thing.
7. “The Glow” – Mateo Katsu. Fans of Neutral Milk Hotel will have their eyes brightened by this rambling, shambling indie-pop tune led by a wistful, winsome accordion melody. There’s also some Weezer influences in the chug to the strum and the arc of the melodies. In short: long live the indie ’90s.
8. “Up” – Ships Have Sailed. SHS follows in the vein of Grouplove, Magic Giant, and Moon Taxi in creating really fun dance-oriented pop-rock out of primarily acoustic parts. This one’s a mid-tempo piece, but that makes it no less fun.
9. “No Going Back” – Ghosts of Social Networks. If Funeral-era Arcade Fire and the Killers had a child, it would sound a lot like this enthusiastically dancy indie-rock track.
10. “Honey Honey” – SISTERS. Subtle things sometimes make all the difference: the claves here match perfectly with the guitar tone and the soft vocals to create a great atmosphere. From that beginning, the song blossoms out into an expansive, post-Transatlanticism indie-pop-rock track. They incorporate synths well too, creating a synthesis of a lot of different ideas on indie-rock into one very exciting track.
Jonny Rodgers (Cindertalk) is starting up a new record label called Off Atlas, and artists who are getting involved are catching my ear. Beyond Cindertalk’s ever-interesting work, The Soldier Story and now Hybird have joined up.
Hybird’s “Sun and Air” is a delicate-yet-weighty indie-pop track, with songwriter Ravi Krishnaswami balancing left-hand piano chords against glockenspiel lead melodies and wavering, trebly electric guitar lines.
The song builds from humble beginnings to a big conclusion, but the tune never feels expansive; even at the apex of the final crescendo, the song sounds more claustrophobic than grand. Krishnaswami’s twee-sounding voice contributes to the feeling of nearness, as its hushed, twee tone makes the vocal melodies drip with vulnerability.
This pervasive sense of intimate closeness, even a little too much closeness, mirrors the lyrics. Written while Krishnaswami’s wife was in bad condition at a hospital, the words try to grapple with the many emotions and fears of having a loved one in an uncertain state. The titular elements are given to the sick loved one “to stay with you / when I’m not there,” a heartbreaking situation to be in. (But yet, the hope of the sun and air!) These uncertainties and tensions match the song’s sonic quality, which shines in the light of hope amid the darkness of a minor key arrangement. Overall, the tune shows a careful attention to the contours of how an arrangement and lyrics fit together, creating an evocative, memorable tune. Fans of Sufjan Stevens’ Michigan-era work or William Fitzsimmons’ delicate-yet-devastating work will find much to love here.
1. “Jessie” – Morricone Youth. This inventive track blends lounge-y jazz saxophone with a Spaghetti western percussion backdrop and an Album Leaf-esque, dreamy digital/analog arrangement. Definitely not something you’ve heard before.
2. “Weather Spirits – Yellowhead. Zinging, ping-ponging synth bonks rattle around over a staccato percussion line and neat samples (static, as well as what sounds like someone breathing) in this instrumental hip-hop track. It’s a way fun ride.
3. “Yamakuza Sunrise” – Sky Vettel. Breakbeats percussion, dj scratching, UFO noises, and funky vocal samples: sign me up for that instrumental hip-hop throwdown.
4. “Post Mortem Muscle Memory” – London Missile. This instrumental hip-hop track skews closer to a chillwave or twee tune, as subtle beats give frame to hushed fuzz, light glitching, a mini-breakbeat section, and sun-dappled moods. Pogo would love this.
5. “Corfu Town” – Hauture. Some chillwave tunes are reverb-heavy fuzz-taculars, but Hauture takes the opposite approach here in creating a precise, pristine electro tune with dreamy atmospheres created through the tones of the synths instead of giant clouds of reverb. The results are a tight, snappy tune that will appeal to fans of Teen Daze.
6. “Lumière” – Noel. There’s so much gravitas packed into this little piano-led instrumental piece that it feels like it could suck the air right out of a room. Made me think of the visual and emotional tension of Inception (but thankfully, the giant foghorns of the soundtrack are not present).
7. “Suddenly Overcome” – Theo Alexander. Like casting stones in swiftly moving water, this piece features left hand chords dropped into a rushing, tumbling right-hand pattern that slowly fades into the background. It’s like a classical piano version of the trick LCD Soundsystem pulls in “All My Friends,” put to very different ends. It’s an emotionally satisfying piece.
8. “INSTYNKT V” – Wojtek Szczepanik. This solo piano piece manages to balance the tensions of soothing and driving, chords and individual melodies, high drama and serene emotions.
9. “Why Go To Paris?” – Alex Tiunaev. A delicate, tender, atmospheric solo piano piece that evokes romantic, mysterious, and melancholy images of the dusky urban cafes in the titular city.
10. “Stairs” – Elgin Thrower Jr. Gentle reverb and hands shifted to the right of the keyboard create an ethereal, soft, pretty piano piece that gracefully moves through space.
11. “Edinburgh” – Nick Watson. Having visited the titular city in 2016, I appreciated the subtle themes that run through this piano-and-strings composition. There’s some city noise in the background, but a gentle set of chords and melodies from the piano take the forefront. (Edinburgh is a bustling place, but there’s also quite a bit of serenity there.) When the strings come in, there’s a sense of arch elegance in the tone contrasting with some severe, serious bowing and rhythms. The city is beautiful but also Scottish: grey, wet, dark, and gloomy. My visitor’s impression of the city is well-captured in this piece.
Some artists are so idiosyncratic that they become required listening despite whether you like that style or not. Depending on their popular success, these people are the greats or the “songwriter’s songwriter.” I’m talking Kendrick Lamar, Beyonce, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Daniel Johnston, The Gorillaz: people who are doing their own thing with a very specific, easily identifiable creative vision. Matthew Squires has been developing a very distinct creative vision for a while now, and Tambaleo brings his fractured, angular, skeptically-but-knowledgably-religious indie-pop to new heights.
The main focus of these songs is Squires’ weary, slightly off-kilter tenor. It’s not your standard voice, even for that particular region of the indie-pop map which celebrates the atypical and imperfect. Squires’ voice rotates between being a spot-on melody maker (“Welcome”), a speak/sing drawl (“Sex & Tragedy”), a slurry dartboard (“Unwholesome Health”), and an onomatopoeic sound machine (“Grace’s Drum”). Sometimes it’s all of these in the space of a single song or even the space of a few lines. For some, the singing will be the reason for attendance; for others, it will be the price of admission. Whichever end of the spectrum you land on, it’s a distinct voice.
The arrangements here are also excellent. Packed full of instruments that seem to be taking their own path through the track at loping tempos, these individual performances come together to fill out Squires’ unique songwriting sensibility. Squires is endlessly inventive and not afraid to experiment with tones, textures, rhythms, and instrument pairings. This makes for songs that clang (“Dead or Dying”), skip along in a twee fashion [“Hosanna (Devotional #3)”], push along in a recognizably indie-pop manner (“Welcome”), and even get their pop-rock on … sort of (“Shape of Your Heart”). All of them have a left turn about every 20 seconds. Some albums keep you on your toes; this one will have you en pointe.
One of the most interesting things about Squires is his continued relationship with religion in his lyrics. Squires is well versed: like any honest religious person, there are moments of certitude, moments of doubt, and moments of skepticism in his relationship to religion. “Unwholesome Health” opens with “Judas was all alone / when he called me on the telephone / and told me about the pain he had caused / about Mary’s face when her Son was torn apart,” while “Welcome” closes with Squires speaking to himself: “You were named after a friend of the son of God / now bracket for a moment whether God exists or not / Have you been kind? / Have you been kind? / Have you been kind?” “Hosanna (Devotional #3)” wears the references on its titular sleeve, while other songs weave religious characters, terms and ideas through the lyrics more subtly. It treats religion as not something to be partitioned away from life, but woven all through it. I dig it.
Not every song on Tambaleo is independently majestic (“Debt Song” isn’t my favorite), but the whole collection is a deeply thoughtful, incredibly well-crafted album from a musician who is hitting his stride. This is the sort of album that not very many people could have made; a wild array of influences mesh into a idiosyncratic, deeply interesting album. Recommended.
Learning how to write in a genre can be a lifelong exploration, even for the most talented of musicians: Josh Ritter has made a whole career exploring the nooks and crannies of modern folk. The Mountain Goats spent a whole decade mastering the lo-fi recording before spending another 15 years doing indie-pop in tons of different styles. As a result of the difficulty and time required to be an expert in one genre, skepticism is warranted when an artist leaves their home genre for another.
This is an even more risky proposition when the target isn’t one new genre, but a multi-genre, broadly “pop” album. Yet despite these many cards stacked against Alex Dezen‘s second solo outing II, the former Damnwells frontman has created a fascinating, incredibly enjoyable album that dabbles in half-a-dozen pop genres. It’s proof of Dezen’s songwriting prowess that he’s not just great in one genre: he’s great in a bunch of them.
Dezen doesn’t try to hide that’s he indulging in any flight of fancy that comes his way: The album opens with “When You Give Up,” a Miami Vice-esque noir new wave tune. Dezen’s lithe voice shines here; not only could he sing the phone book and make it sound great, he could sing it in a wide variety of genres, as well. His knack for catchy melodies is on display everywhere, from the vocal melodies to acoustic guitar riffs to blocky synth blasts. “Holding on to You (Holding on to Me)” has more ’80s rock vibes–this time more Heart than Blondie (“Barracuda,” in particular). As ever, the chorus hook is polished till it glows–you’ll be mumbling “holdingontoyou / holdingontoME” for a long while afterwards.
From there on, Dezen goes in full-on world tour mode. “Randolph Tonight” is CCR-esque swamp rock; “I Am a Racist” is a straight-up doo-wop tune; “New York to Paradise” is a lost Billy Joel piano ballad; “Fuck or Fight” is an Eagles-style country-rock rambler. None of these songs feel insincere or mishandled; Dezen waltzes his way through each of them with a deft hand. It’s even more to his credit that he played almost every instrument on this album. It’s one thing to write a melody in a different genre, and it’s another thing entirely to have the chops on multiple instruments to pull off a whole arrangement in another genre.
My favorite tunes here are ones that pair excellent arrangements with incisive, carefully wrought lyrics. The REM jangle of “I Had a Band” relates anecdotes from a coming-of-age tale with the emotionally charged punch line “I never had much of a father / but I had a band / yeah, I had a band.” Anyone who’s been in a band will relate to the loving, wry tone that runs through the lyrics, whether or not your relationship with your father was great. IC had the distinct honor of premiering the Graceland-inspired “Everything’s Great (Everything’s Terrible),” which has a thoughtful set of lyrics about people in the contemporary moment just trying to make it through. The acoustic closer “The Boys of Bummer” is a lovely song about people who write sad songs by a person who writes sad songs. The dignity with which the characters meander through the tune makes me think of The Hold Steady.
Because of the herculean effort Dezen expends on every track, the album is only 9 songs. Yet in those nine songs he creates his own personal version of the radio, putting his imprint on pop music. It’s a rare album that manages to pull off all that Dezen does here: this is a fully-realized album on “extra difficulty” mode. If you like pop music in any way, shape, or form, you need to hear this album. Highly recommended.
Reinvention can be challenging: Danny Elfman’s groundbreaking band Oingo Boingo went through a variety of changes, while Berlin changed the record industry’s perception of the band when Terri Nunn re-joined the outfit. Rather than a flashback, Oklahoma City’s former Starlight Mintsfrontman Allan Vest and producer Barb Vest are having no issues creating magic withan incredible blend of vibes that includes touches from the best of the 1980s new wave experimental revolution. DoubleVee is set to release its debut album, The Moonlit Fables of Jack the Rider, on February 10 via CEN/RED Distribution, a division of Sony Music. Not a bad way to start.
Jack the Rider was recorded and produced at their home studio in Norman, Oklahoma, with some mixing and mastering from Matt Pence at The Echo Lab and additional mixing and mastering from Wes Sharon at 115 Recording. The results are an incredibly cool, distinct concept album. The album follows the story of Jack, a traveler who descends from remnants of the Twilight Zone. The ten songs are a trippy wander, and it is easy to see how the former Starlight Mints work has been exposed to Iggy Pop and David Bowie. “‘Jack the Rider” integrates the vocal gifts of both Vests into a solid, subtle instrumentation that highlights the story. The tune transitions into “What You Deserve,” with background strings and whistles suggesting a stroll down a twisted version of Sesame Street.
“Frucus Minus (The Flycatcher)” is theatrical, the instrumentation a hip go-go grind. Somehow the music overwhelms the stench of the tale, like flowers popping out through manure in a garden. Allen’s beginnings as an adopted child seem to sing through the album: lost but found, alone but belonging–a DNA search around the time of this record found his birth father to be a music store owner in Houston area during the 1960s. “Dangerous World” delivers that feeling with Ziggy Stardust alienation. It also verifies the fact that we are who we are meant to become when the rubber meets the road. The piano-driven “Motorcade Serenade” is perfect; a march into a fuller instrumentation never feels inauthentic.
Ethereal vocals from Barb Vest drift into “Jose’s Apparition,” feeling an echo from Allen. Strings become a force in the story, a complete paradox to the feel of the song. One might think Jose is a tequila reference, especially if listeners have experienced the wrath of the morning after. The introduction of “Bumper Car Parade” definitely is hallucinatory. This is concept art, music, and theatrics worth the attention of Tim Burton. Hitting the retro stroll of “Quiz Show,” the perky feel is a TARDIS of sorts, collecting tidbits of musical history along the way. The modern mashup is impeccable.
Downtempo for the first time in Jack’s journey, “Wait In Blues” is real love. Heading out of the album, listeners are invited to be witnesses to the transformation that time and the journey made possible over another summer. Back to Oklahoma, Moonlit Fables of Jack the Rider comes full circle with “Nocturnal Boy.” Bright and uptempo, often the most demanding challenges become the most rewarding paradoxes in life. Concept albums can be memorable for listeners and thrive for generations. The debut effort from doubleVee has the potential to be one of those special albums.–Lisa Whealy
Nichoals Roberts’ Springbok Sessions video for “River to a Flood” sets him in nature, hanging out in the grounds behind the Mennello Museum of American Art in Orlando. It’s sunset, and there’s a hazy background that could be a lake, a river, or some other wide expanse. The serene conditions are a perfect match for Roberts’ delicate, almost crystalline tune; his whisper-folk voice meshes seamlessly over a gently strummed acoustic guitar. There are traces of William Fitzsimmons’ hushed intensity here, as well as Sufjan Stevens’ Michigan-era elegies. The results are magnificent; it’s a beautiful rendition of an excellent song.
1. “Me to Bleed” – Madeleine Dopico. Dopico’s powerful voice and large range are on full display here, as she just powerhouses her way through a churning, pounding indie rock tune. It sounds like an unhinged Lake Street Dive working a minor key. Wow.
2. “Pin on a Map” – Fiesta Morose. The band name is perfect here, as the high-drama dourness of Leonard Cohen or Nick Cave meets the full-band enthusiasm and stylistic precision of early Arcade Fire in a beautiful collision.
3. “Property” – Jillian Steele. Sometimes a pop song jumps out of the pack and impresses itself upon my brain. This female-empowerment anthem is a acoustic-pop jam that opens up into a big, memorable, Lilith-Fair-esque chorus.
4. “Orbit Berlin” – Evil Astronaut. This thrumming, brooding electro-pop tune has a big human heart via the vulnerable vocal performance and and expertly-employed vocal modulations, harmonies, and counterpoints. The big, heavenly-sounding synths at the end help that warm feeling along.
5. “This Mess Won’t Make Itself” – Dead Seem Old. Songs influenced by flamenco guitar are just always so jubilant and lively, even when not in a major key. This dance-inducing track includes rat-a-tat vocal rhythms, perky horns, and a great mood. Awesome.
6. “Captain’s Ship” – Sasha and the Bear. This swaying, undulating indie-pop track is woozy in the best way: there’s a sense of the unusual and unexpected hanging over this track, from the rhythms to the unique vocal tone to the mix of delicate stringed instruments and big synths. It’s infectious.
7. “Live Like You (The Empty Vignette)” – Eli Otterholt. The lovely instrumental mood is a mix between the calm of Alexi Murdoch and the sweep of Gregory Alan Isaakov. The multi-generational lyrics spin a compelling tale of hope and love.
8. “Walk Towards the Fireworks” – Liam Paton. Ostensibly a solo piano composition, this excellent track combines gentle brushed percussion, lush strings, melodically interesting piano, and even horns to create a whirling, enveloping landscape.
9. “Rain” – Delafaye. A sleepy, reverb-laden acoustic piece that really evokes the mood of grey day. The vocal melodies in the chorus are particularly great.
10. “Sweetly” – The Show Ponies. There’s always room in my heart for a tender, unfussy love song. The warm acoustic guitar performance, earnest female vocal performance, and ear-catching vocal melodies put this tune on the top shelf.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.