1. “Brother” – Strawberry Runners. This is an incredibly tight indie-pop song. It ropes in influences from all over the place to build a tune that is catchy yet still contemplative, expansive yet intimate, and ultimately deeply satisfying. Highly recommended.
2. “Blue Cloud” – Wand. I’ve rarely heard an indie-pop/prog fusion in my life, but there’s a first time for everything. This 8-minute track takes listeners on a journey through an immediately familiar chamber indie-pop soundscape that only gets more alien as the song keeps going and going and going. Engrossing.
3. “Aloof” – BOKITO. There is an unbelievable amount of great moments packed into the 3:31 of this tune. It’s a mystic alt-folk tune, it’s a wild ’80s-influenced dance-rock song, it’s an unclassifiable indie-rock rave-up. Massively impressed.
4. “Clap Your Hands” – Brad Peterson. It’s hard to make handclaps sound sad, so Peterson doesn’t even try: this is an infectious, enthusiastic indie-pop song about clapping your hands. Clap on, friends.
5. “Collide” – Junkyardfieldtrip. A bouncy folk tune tempered by a raspy voice spitting some serious gravitas–at least until the chorus.
6. “I Haven’t Been Taking Care of Myself” – Alex Lahey. It’s hard to write more than one great pop song per album, but it sure sounds like Lahey has multiple (including this one) on her upcoming debut. This is a massive power-pop tune that checks all the boxes for “great tune”: vocal tone, vocal melodies, big guitars, fun auxiliary instruments, and big quiet/loud moments. Love it.
7. “Out Among the Sheltering Pines” – The Helio Sequence. Starts out as an old-timey folk tune with a lovely acoustic arrangement, then bursts open into an indie-rock tune. Fantastic.
8. “I Need Somebody” – Glasspop. This a fun, thoroughly danceable dance-rock tune. No frills, just the goods.
9. “As Long as I Can See” – Broke Royals. Has that easy anthemic quality that Bastille has almost trademarked.
10. “Heat (it covers everything)” – the fin. A head bobbing, gently grooving track that lands somewhere between indie-electro and indie-pop. It does seem to mimic and interpret a hazy, thick heat wave.
1. “Silverlake” – Underlined Passages. The dreamy indie-pop of UP’s previous work is traded for a punchy indie-rock model; Michael Nestor’s vocal lines are still flowing and smooth, but the now-more-crunchy-than-jangly guitars and snappy drums give this tune a new-found pep.
2. “Though Your Sins Be As Scarlet, They Shall Be White As Snow;” – Glacier. Dense, heavily distorted, pounding guitar chords set the atmosphere for this 13-minute post-rock/post-metal epic, but there’s a lot more going on in 13 minutes than just chug (including a found-sound clip of an old time voice reading the end of Matthew 9).
3. “English Weather” – Fick as Fieves. British rock that falls somewhere between the Arctic Monkeys and The Vaccines, propelled forward by an indomitable syncopated guitar riff.
4. “Like Lightning” – Cosmo Calling. Fun vocal rhythms and melodies take the lead on this indie-pop-rock track. The guitars are neat and accompany well, but this one is all about the staccato, syncopated vocal delivery.
5. “Canary” – Holy ’57. There’s a certain type of major-key, drums-first vintage groove that reminds me of fuzzy home videos of summer in NYC during the ’60s and ’70s. People are rollerskating. A dude is playing a trumpet on the corner. There’s a hazy glow around everything. This indie-pop song sounds just like that (even includes a trumpet!).
6. “I Can’t Say No” – The Crayon Set. Smooth, appealing acoustic indie-pop with some fuzzed-out guitar and shimmering synths adding color. The chill vocals fit perfectly over the backdrop.
7. “Bedford” – Too Many Zooz. If you’re into Moon Hooch’s mad sax blast, you’ll be equally thrilled by the sax-trumpet-drums maelstrom that is Too Many Zooz. This video sees them bringing their incredibly infectious rhythms and powerhouse melodies to the NYC subway–at 3:33 in the morning. Stuff like this just happens at 3 a.m. in New York, I guess?
8. “Keep the Car Running” – Silver Torches. If Bruce Springsteen had emerged in this era, this might be what like he would have sounded like: surging drums, melodic piano, yearning vocals, and a serious-yet-warm atmosphere. Just a great tune.
9. “International Dreams” – Farm Hand. A rubbery, loping electronic beat underlines distant, almost-droning vocals for a tune that sounds like “My Girls”-era Animal Collective in a sleepy (yet still happy) mood.
10. “Like Going Down Sideways” – Cut Worms. Lo-fi tape hiss, Beatles-esque songwriting impulses, and “eh-it-doesn’t-need-to-be-perfect” performances make for an endearing tune.
11. “Old Fashioned Way” – Todd Kessler. Ah, yes. A calm, gentle folk love song talking about slowing down and looking back to the old fashions. It doesn’t get much more folky than this, y’all, and it doesn’t get much more chill.
12. “Enjoy It While It Lasts” – Easy Wanderlings. Strong female vocals lead the way through this easygoing folk tune. The video has an actress gallivanting around in a field, which is a pretty much perfect analogue to this wistful, nostalgic tune.
I live in the Phoenix area now, which means that my predisposition towards seasonally-themed music is suffering from a seemingly perpetual summer. It’s almost October, dang it, and it should be fall. Joel Madison Blount‘s “Inner Monologue” is a tune helping me get into that autumnal spirit.
“Inner Monologue” is a dusky, twilit tune with a bit of a split personality. The verses are downcast, summoning feelings of urban nightly gloom. (The lyrics about middle-of-the-night doubts help this mood along.) The chorus, though, is all soaring lines, yearning guitars, and hopeful lyrics: “release your burdens / let it go / just let it go.” This section has just as much ’90s Oasis-esque Brit-pop in it as it does contemporary acoustic work.
Ultimately, the back-and-forth mirrors some of the alternating cold and warmth of fall. Fans of Gregory Alan Isakov will immediately gravitate toward the tension-and-release nature of the work and the cloudy-yet-tight arrangements.
“Inner Monologue” comes from Our New Moon, which drops September 29. You can pre-order it here.
Builder of the House‘s Ornaments is way more Christmas in July than actually a December record. The acoustic album is warm, sunny, mellow, and happy. The tunes unspool at an easy pace, unhurried and unworried. If you’re in a bad mood and want to slowly rise out of it, I can’t think of a better record for it. The standout title track has a bit of Lord Huron in the melodic structure, while “When No One Is Here” feels like a mood-inverted Rocky Votolato song. Smooth, elegant, and yet crisp in its arrangements, this album just hits the spot for lazy summer days and aspirational winter ones. Highly recommended.
As jittery and frenetic as that last one was calm and relaxing, Emperor X‘s Oversleepers International is a feast for fans of that spot where pop-punk, alt-folk, indie-pop, literary studies, political science, and psychology intersect. In other terms, it’s as if late ’90s John Darnielle joined the Weakerthans instead of being compared to them.
“Wasted on the Senate Floor” is a verbal blitzkrieg married to a frantic acoustic-punk band; “Schopenhauer in Berlin” slows down the pace enough for the lyrics to be understandable but still requires you to look up who Schopenhauer is. Elsewhere, Emperor X goes all wacky Ben Folds (“Riot for Descendant Command”), references Anonymous and North Korea in a song called “Low Orbit Ion Cannon” (!!), and creates one of the weirdest travel journals ever (that also doubles as a breakup tune of sorts; it’s the title track, because of course).
Also there’s a techno-dance song and an ambient tune. The English town of Dorset and Vilnius, Lithuania are involved. The songs are crazy and memorable, musically and lyrically–what else could you ask for? Highly recommended.
Zach Winters‘ latest folk records were delicate-yet-intense constructions of great seriousness and import. On To Have You Around, Winters sounds downright loose. “Sometimes I Wonder” starts off in his traditionally ghostly acoustic vein, but turns into a more-than-subtly funky pop song by chorus. It is rad. “If the Sun is Shining” doubles down and gets a funky bass line on a stand-up bass and snazzily jazzy horns involved.
“Do You Really” starts off with the line “taking a shower with a known carcinogen” and proceeds to be a “chill out, stop worrying” song. “Love My Woman” is exactly what you would expect from the title and previous descriptions. Even the instrumental “Buffalo” has a chipper vibe. It’s a new look for Winters, and it’s a great one. If you’re looking for some acoustic-fronted, low-key-funky pop songs, look no further for a great time. Highly recommended.
Listen to the River by The Collection opens with a midrash on 2 Samuel 6 that functions as a breakup letter to God: “I can no longer carry the ark / if it’s causing the death of my friends /
So I’ll trade that gold ballast for hand-laden altars / And baptize myself in the lake.” It’s a bold, thorny way to start a record, even if it is a fitting thesis statement for the following work that grapples with a seeming loss of faith amid a beautiful folk-orchestral suite.
For listeners tracking with Wimbish’s exploration of doubts in Christianity, this lyrical direction will not come as a surprise–but it might still hurt: lines like the aforementioned, the title “Siddhartha (My Light Was A Ghost),” and “I hope to break myself open / Drain this poison water / Let it flow back to its ocean / That I used to call, “Father”” (from “The Alchemy of Awe”) make no bones about the crumbling of faith. For those still in the faith, it’s always troubling to see people take their grievances and make for the doors; for those outside of the faith, this might read like someone coming to the light. For those who may be going through the same thing with Wimbish, this might be a vital touchpoint in the experience, along with David Bazan’s Curse Your Branches.
While Bazan has been very open with his atheism, Wimbish’s lyrics throughout still seem to be grappling. There are harsh words, yes, but there are also many moments where the harsh words seem to give way to resignation (“No Maps of the Past”) or disappointment (closer “The Listener”). The closer is sung directly at / to God, and Wimbish seems to be, yes, heading for the doors (“If I head south, will that be heresy? / No, I don’t think so”). But the fact that He’s still addressed leaves the door open enough to wonder where this will all go. That’s the thing with doubt: until it crystallizes into something else, it’s always a door that yet remains ajar.
In that opening salvo I mentioned earlier, it’s just Wimbish and a keyboard; the rest of the seven band members come crashing in afterwards. It’s indicative of the tensions encompassed in the record: the lyrics of this record are focused almost exclusively on Wimbish’s spiritual journey at the same time that the orchestral-folk unit sounds tighter than ever.
The Collection has really come into its own as a unit on this record, as Listen to the River replaces the fire and fury of predecessor Ars Moriendi with intricate, dense melodicism. Both are giant records stuffed full of instruments and vocals, this one is filled with subtle touches that play up the strengths of the band members.
Upbeat indie-pop tune “You Taste Like Wine” has a sweet (yet short) bass solo. Standout “Birds” has an astonishing clarinet melody–actually, anywhere Hope Baker’s clarinet appears is a great moment. The group vocals on “Sing Of The Moon” seem more like an actual choir singing than a giant group of people yelling. (Far be it from me, though, to knock group yelling: the shout-it-out conclusion of “Birds” is one of the most rousing moments on the record.) The electric guitar leads on “The Older One.” The songs are composed with a full outfit in mind, not just with the band as the finishing touch. As a result, the whole record is a touch calmer musically than former work.
There’s so much going on in a Collection record that there are nigh-on infinite angles to take in a review. I haven’t mentioned the lyrical themes of mysticism and divorce that run through this record, nor the sudden appearance of A Rush of Blood to the Head-era Coldplay piano work. There’s the consistent mention of rivers and water, of sleep and waking, of going somewhere. There’s vibraphone and synth. It’s just a ton of stuff happening.
If you’re into folk-orchestra work, challenging lyrics, religious themes, and/or music that requires your full attention, Listen to the River will give you plenty. It’s heavy. You may not want to go where it’s going. It is not dumbed-down. It is an honest chronicle of where they were and what they had to give, lyrically and musically. Wimbish and co. poured it all in. That’s worth noting.
Illustrated Manual‘s Wives’ Talesdraws on a deep well of gravitas to create an album of great dignity, calm, and (yet) emotional impact. The pieces that Jon Cooke used to make this deeply moving album are no more than what could be called spartan arrangements, a baritone voice, and incisive lyrical sets.
Cooke’s voice is in especially fine form here: he can sing a dramatic line with great gusto, but he can also inflect lines and syllables with subtle touches that are ultimately just as powerful. The gentle arrangements here surround an acoustic guitar and a mandolin, but this isn’t folk or bluegrass; this is singer/songwriter work with influences from those genres. Where much singer/songwriter goes astray into bland verse/chorus/verse monotony or generic emotionalism, Cooke’s vocal and instrumental melodies are crafted with a careful hand. Cooke’s willing to let things be spare instead of going for the big move; the results are single-set gems, with nothing to distract from the shine.
The lyrics here are huge: “Negatives,” “Stump,” “Boy in a China Shop,” “The Lumberjack” and “Ant on a Rubber Rope” are each incredible in their own ways. They tell stories of tragedy (“Stump” and “Boy in a China Shop” are deeply sad), change (“Negatives,” “The Lumberjack”) and religious imagery (“Ant on a Rubber Rope”). That’s basically the whole first half of record; the back half of the record is compelling as well.
If you’re into calm, mature, finely crafted acoustic music, you need to check out Illustrated Manual’s Wives’ Tales. Highly recommended.
It sounds like if frantic vocals of early Bright Eyes were thrown into a folk orchestra (like The Collection) with some folk-punk acoustic strumming keeping the beat and some LCD Soundsystem thrown in for good measure. It is probably more chaotic and exciting than even that description, though.
There’s a nearly 7-minute track completely composed of shearing/shrieking metal (strangely, the title track of the album), because WotM does what it wants.
The album’s twelve tracks take roughly 70 minutes to listen to. That’s a lot of chaotic enthusiasm.
The album is roughly two parts, the wild folk-pop before the metal music and the alt-rock/dance-rock that comes after it. This latter part is no less interesting for its Modest Mouse-ian qualities, even if I’m a folk guy at heart.
The lyrics of this album are intense and complex, focused heavily on religious seeking/ questioning and the complexities of living life while going through that type of thing. They are raw, honest, and unflinching. They made my head spin.
You have almost certainly never heard anything like this in your life.
Start with the excellent I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning lost track “Holy Mountain,” the beautiful “Southwest Mercurial,” or the 12-minute journey “Lovehills in Versailles.”
The start-stop arrangement of Harp Samuels‘ “Wanting” sounds like the distant fragility of Jeff Buckley’s guitar work run through a latter-day Bon Iver-esque mood filter. Soul-inflected vocals, a la Moses Sumney, complete the arrangement. The tune itself takes its time to get where it’s going–at over six minutes, the song gently unspools at its own pace. The results are a languid, free-flowing tune that would fit nicely as the satisfying conclusion of a soulful indie playlist.
“Wanting” comes from Samuels’ self-released album of the same name, which drops September 8.
We took a day off from driving toward Phoenix and went up to see the Grand Canyon.
46. Anybody Out There? – Burlap to Cashmere. Almost certainly the only Christian flamenco-fusion band that was ever popular.
47. Transatlanticism – Death Cab for Cutie. “Death of an Interior Decorator” is the only song on this record that isn’t flawless.
48. Give Up – The Postal Service. After hiking six miles at the Grand Canyon, I fell asleep on the way back to Flagstaff and missed half this record. Boo.
49. Give Us Rest – David Crowder Band. A massive triple album that capped the band’s career, this record almost can’t be contained in words. It is an experience and a half.
Day 8: Flagstaff to Scottsdale
Coming into the home stretch!
49b. Give Us Rest – David Crowder Band. Did I mention this is a triple album?
50. The Goat Rodeo Sessions – Stuart Duncan, YoYo Ma, Chris Thile, Edgar Meier. We finally hit the high desert (you know, the part with Saguaro Cactus), and this kind of felt appropriate. I almost chose some Calexico, but I wanted to hear this more.
51. Ocean Eyes – Owl City. I won’t say who chose this record, but we both enjoyed the crap out of it.
51b. “Elegy” – The Young Blood Brass Band. A one-off while trying to figure out what to listen to next.
52. Declaration of Dependence – Kings of Convenience. KoC is pretty distinctive: I’d never heard this record but still was able to guess that it was them.
53. Bleed American aka Jimmy Eat World – Jimmy Eat World. We were driving through Mesa, so it worked.
Day 9: Scottsdale to the Phoenix Airport
All things come to an end, and so did this journey. I sent Kevin off early in the morning to
54. Goths – The Mountain Goats. Another great album from 2017, this low-key record was a suitably soothing way to wake up. It also put a nice bookend on it: Mountain Goats at the beginning, Mountain Goats at the end.
1. “Haze” – Grapefruit Moon. Comes barreling in with a bold, mature folk sound that does not let on that this is a debut. You can hear snatches of influences in the song if you try, but overall this is a bold sound with a clear identity that establishes them as one to watch.
2. “Understanding Light” – Florist. Listening to Florist is like standing outside looking at the night sky and realizing that the moon is slightly orange tonight, and it looks really pretty, and you don’t know why, but it’s too beautiful to pull out your phone and find out, so you just look at it some more. Maybe someone comes up and says, “What are you looking at?” and you just kinda nod that direction and they get it and you’re there together doing the staring and it’s the way things should be.
3. “Make Believe” – Ben Bateman. It’s a tough thing to make a single acoustic guitar sound vibrant and fresh (even with a stomping kick drum). Bateman pulls in characteristics from The Tallest Man on Earth and Brett Dennen to create a bouncy, thoroughly engaging, fresh acoustic tune.
4. “Wild, Wild, Wild Horses” – A. Savage. Lopes along with the idiosyncratic confidence of a person who doesn’t feel any need to be anything other than himself because he already has another band (in this case, Parquet Courts). This tune, a speak/sing ramble full of distant synths, is weird and lovely and unforgettable.
5. “I Won’t Sleep” – Caiti Baker. It’s been a while since back-up vocalists and marching-band horns sucked me in to a song so hard. This one has learned all the lessons of swaggering hip-hop and filtered them through an indie-pop sieve for a really nice cocktail.
6. “Too Good” – Marsicans. Are you sick of me praising Marsicans yet? Here’s another vibrant, bouncy slice of indie rock.
7. “And Such and Such” – The Forty Nineteens. Just a big ‘ol rock and roll song from the ’60s or ’70s school: no psych, no minor keys, just big riffs, snarly vocals, and speedy tempos.
8. “Now I Know” – Sono Oto. Riffs don’t have to be face-melting garage-rock theatrics to be awesome. This rattletrap, Beck-inflected tune has great guitar lines throughout that keep the vibe flowing.
9. “Listening to Devil Town” – Jacob Faurholt. This wide-open, reverb-heavy, ballad-esque indie-rock track is literally about the experience of listening to “Devil Town” by Daniel Johnston. If you haven’t heard that, you should listen to that, and then you should listen to this.
10. “I’m a Tree (Acoustic)” – JOY. A solid acoustic version of what sounds like it could be a promising rock track.
11. “Oceans” – Magana. A cover of a tune by the inimitable CHUCK, Magana takes the jittery enthusiasm that is his trademark and turns it into a mournful dirge. It’s quite the transformation.
12. “Brassy Sun” – S. Carey. Carey knows how to make a beautiful song. This serene piano-led piece is just majestic.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.