1. “Somethings” – Sariah Mae. This song sounds like it was blown out of a bubble wand: a round, gleaming, shimmery, light thing that lolls along in the wind. Indie pop at its shiny, bubbly best.
2. “Super Natural” – Turnover. Does the thing has emerged in my family as a term of high praise: you need to do something, you select a tool to do it, and the tool works perfectly. It does the thing. This dream-pop tune does the thing: it has reverby guitars, delicate vocals, loping bass, and enough energy from the drums to keep the “pop” part working. Just totally solid.
3. “Bright and Blue” – Tomo Nakayama. This indie-pop track feels like walking on clouds, what with the ethereal pad synths in the background, the walking-pace shuffle snare, and the friendly vocal approach. Very excited for this upcoming album.
4. “All My Faith” – The Last Dinosaur. An intimate-yet-sweeping acoustic indie track that calls to mind Michigan-era Sufjan and other lush-arrangement singer/songwriters.
5. “Altaïr” – Camel Power Club. Well, isn’t this a wild mix: synths, acoustic guitar, ’90s hip-hop beats, bongos, breathy vocals, theremin-esque sounds, and more are all wrapped up in a smooth, grooving electro-indie-pop tune. Whoa.
6. “Living in Fame” – Fever Kids. The feathery vocals that provide the lead hook for this tune fit perfectly with a slightly ominous, LCD Soundsystem-esque bass line and create a sort of post-disco indie-pop track. The vibe here is unusual and exciting.
7. “Duluoz Dream” – Sal Dulu. A bleary-eyed jazz trumpet provides the entry point into this low-key indie-electro instrumental, squiggly bits, mournful piano, and other sounds come together to create a chill, head-bobbin’ piece.
8. “July” – Ellie Ford. Some jaunty flamenco rhythms on a nylon-string guitar provide the base of this song, which then expands into a carefully-coordinated minor-key indie-rock tune led by Ford’s delicate voice.
9. “If You Saw Her” – Mark Bryan. The quirky, plunk-plunk lead melody in this folk/country tune is a weirdly infectious riff. The rest of the tune is a bright, clear, folk/country tune guided to its satisfying conclusion by an assured hand and a lithe voice.
11. “Watching From a Distance” – David Ramirez. Ramirez updates his country sound with burbling electronics, Simon and Garfunkel-esque percussion, and a large arrangement more reminiscent of indie-folk than stark country ventures. It’s a surprising, excellent turn. His voice is still amazing–nothing changed there.
12. “I Wanna Go Down to the Basement” – Wooden Wand. Loopy, chilled-out folk that asserts “I am no longer afraid”; despite these reassurances, James Jackson Toth’s voice has a jittery quality that gives the song energy.
13. “Take Over” – Tom Rosenthal. Fans of Greg Laswell and Rush of Blood to the Head-era Coldplay will love this piano-driven tune, which pulses and pushes forward and yet still remains intimate.
14. “Killing Me” – Luke Sital-Singh. The emotional piano ballad is tough to pull off, but Sital-Singh here provides a master course on how to do it right. This song is emotionally devastating.
A translation of the live music experience to a recorded format often loses the jazz that makes the listening audience jive, but this one keeps it going. Celebrating that incredible connection between us all, One Night Records has released Live at Nectar’s, capturing the work of jazz guitar genius Melvin Sparks just months before his passing. This performance from the sixty-four year old guitarist became his final legacy to his fans.
The idea of jazz guitar came about in the 1930s as a result of amplification helping guitars to be heard over the full sound of big bands. This humble birth blasted forward with a sound that electrified audiences. At twenty years old, Sparks had a career that began with the likes of Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye; this connection to soul is apparent to new listeners and fans alike. The nine song album (including two tracks available here only) is a lifetime of jazz soul. Produced and mixed by Eddie Roberts with release curation by Simon Allen (both of The New Mastersounds), Live at Nectar’s is issued for the first time in limited edition vinyl.
At the venue’s recommendation, two variables were thrown into the mix: Dave Grippo on alto saxophone and Brian McCarthy on tenor saxophone (known as The Grippo Horns). This spark thrown into the musical amalgamate that included organist Beau Sasser and drummer Bill Carbone, creating a true vibe of unpredictability for the music ahead. This group of musicians spans generations, a beautiful fact that is lost in the translation to multi-track tape to all but the most diehard of jazz fans. But because of their huge amount of experience, the outfit’s loving attention to detail puts listeners in the room, every nuance soaring in twisting spirals of melody.
Jazz is fluid and builds off of each piece of the puzzle to create. Songs like “Miss Riverside” show a flair for the solo work that came later in the evolution of the genre. But the brilliant thing here is the fact that the set is sprinkled with covers of well known songs. The band breathes new life into “Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I Got).” Standards like “Breezin’” are here for listeners, as Sparks illustrates the life in each note of guitarwork, be it intricate or subtle. All the guitarwork is purposefully defying the definition of jazz as a free musical style with no set rules of performance.
“Whip! Whop!” is a bit of genius that effortlessly fuses together bits of funk, jazz, blues, and classical quips of music seamlessly. A bit of this treasure is the fact that Melvin Sparks and the audience interact here, a true live album. “Cranberry Sunshine” hits that cool vibe that makes the guitarist so great; subtle yet intricate it is the best of what jazz is.
Texas-born Melvin Sparks was brought up on rhythm & blues. Those influences infiltrate his guitar style on songs like “Fire Eater,” throwing in a toe tapping groove. “Hot Dog” and “Thank You” are only available on the album, songs that brilliantly fuse funk and soul into an uptempo party. These two are a fitting way to head out of an album, produced by artists in Allen and Roberts, who honor the talent that has gone before their own. —Lisa Whealy
1. “Desultory” – Arthur in Colour. Jubilance seems always so difficult to singers with low voices (like Matt Berninger of the National and Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields), and Arthur Sharpe is no exception. You can tell he’s jubilant, though, because the multi-layered technicolor indie-pop that he’s fronting is hard to describe in terms other than “exuberant,” “bright,” and enthusiastic. It’s the sort of thing that has marimbas, synths, organs, jaunty guitars, and a constant male/female duet all somehow coming together into one beautiful synthesis.
2. “Outta Cash” – Bon Villain. There’s a subtle grit to the vocals here that remind me (ever so slightly) of bands like The Hold Steady. The music is a smart mix of bubbly MGMT electro and streamlined, slicked-back Cobra Starship electro. It feels very now and very on.
3. “Give Me Your Love” – Briana Marela. Chirpy synths, clicky beats, and stomping toms allow Marela’s smooth melodic lines to create a nice tension in this lush, expansive electro-pop tune.
4. “Fat Tuesday” – The AV Club. A funky, jazzy instrumental interpretation of the New Orleans Brass Band sound that’s so much fun. This retains all the spirit of the Big Easy with a slight twist, which is cool.
5. “Witches” – Good Kid. The frantic, youthful vocals of early Vampire Weekend meeting the stylized guitar-heavy indie rock of the early ’00s (The Strokes) results in a skittering, punchy, enthusiastically fun indie-rock track.
6. “Please” – Josiah and the Bonnevilles. Following up their impressive debut EP, Josiah and co. return with a song that’s equal parts ragged Dylan-esque folk song, clanging Americana rock (a la The Low Anthem), and Springsteen. The falsetto-laden chorus is just great. The conclusion of the video is intriguing, too.
7. “Dear Science” – Blimp Rock. Blimp Rock is a endearingly absurd band (they tried to sue the Toronto Blue Jays, their stated purpose is to raise money for a blimp), and this song is no different: a duet/discussion between the lead singer and “science” (as played by a theoretical physicist who is not taking any shit from the lead singer). The quirky indie-pop-rock fits the content to a T.
8. “Moonlight Dancing” – Vito. It’s like Dashboard Confessional’s romanticism, a pop-punk band’s vocal melodies, and indie-rock mid-tempo guitars fused into a perfect simulacra of my teenage experience. The first time I heard this song, I felt like I’d known it forever.
9. “Jimmy” – GREY \\ WATER. I’m not really into the disco revival, but indie rock song is disco smashed to bits, mixed with modern dance rock and indie pop vocal melodies, stuck in a blender, and then baked into something new. This is how you do genre mixing right. Dang.
10. “Dreamin’” – bellwire. Back when country and rock’n’roll and Brill Building pop were all intermingled, some really lovely ballads emerged. This track follows in that vintage-drama vein, tapping into modern (but no less dramatic; vintage pop included a lot of death and debauchery, for real) concerns.
11. “Rich in Love” – Afterlife Revival. Pulls the Neil Young trick of feeling both rickety and solid in its folky/acoustic/pop-type arrangement. The vocal performance is evocative, but it’s the oh-so-perfect melodic instrumental bridge that really sells this tune.
12. “Change It All” – Harrison Storm. Smooth, lithe, stark, groove-laden, and yet high-drama, this song packs a lot into its shape. You may think you’ve heard this acoustic/adult alternative all before, but there are surprises up Storm’s sleeve for those who listen intently.
13. “Heart and Mind” – Courtney Marie Andrews. Andrew’s passionate alto and thoughtful lyrics ring clear as a bell here. This stripped-down performance feels like a breath of fresh air.
14. “Runner” – Jon and Roy. A humorous, Wes Anderson-inspired video accompanies a chipper acoustic pop tune that starts out in the pocket and never leaves. Jon and Roy have been plying the trade a long time, and it shows in their easy confidence, infectious melodies, and strong groove throughout.
15. “Cold (Trevor Ransom Remix)” – Bjéar. Ransom transforms the original “build from solo piano to giant pop conclusion” chassis and totally reinvents it as a spacious ambient track that takes the listener on a walk through a dark-yet-wondrous forest.
1. “Promise Land” – Sinners & Saints. Big-hearted, foot-stompin’, smile-inducing alt-country complete with stand-up bass, fiddle, and harmonica. The vocals are infused with a sweet, earnest quality that is not usually found in this type of music. Remember when the Avett Brothers were a ramshackle, upstart duo that could make you holler and cry? It’s like that. Great stuff.
2. “Let You Be” – Gian Luca & the Oak. Italy by way of London? You’d never know it from this thrilling slice of upbeat, major-key Americana. A vivid fiddle and enthusiastic stand-up bass create the frame for joyous harmonica and Luca’s low vocals. This is just a ton of fun.
3. “Evergreen” – Builder of the House. This warm, open, happy folk tune plays like an inversion of Fleet Foxes (all love to the FF): the harmonies expand the soaring reach of the song instead of getting close in, and the arrangement is spacious. There’s room to sit with this, to hear every instrument and to clap along. If you’re into Lord Huron, this will be immediately interesting.
4. “Bait My Soul” – James AM Downes. Somewhere between twinkly folk music and bouncy indie-pop lands this lovely, dreamy track. The arrangement here is tight and engaging, wrapping me in a mood instantly.
5. “Behold” – J. Alan Schneider. Resonant, bass-heavy acoustic guitar picking with more than a bit of Appalachian melodic influence opens this track in a powerful way. Schneider’s whispery voice is a high tenor that contrasts nicely against the low end of the guitar, and that tension drives this emotionally-charged song.
6. “Sundial” – Kazyak. Good-natured full-band folk that recalls Lord Huron in its commitments to be fully involved in acoustic folk music but also fully involved in being poppy and fun. The song passes by easily, leaving me with a grin and good vibe.
7. “Falling South” – Lee Watson. If you’re up for a slice of Laurel Canyon/West Coast Country, Lee Watson has a perfectly-turned tune in the style for you: creaky vocals, cooed background vox, weeping pedal steel, and a walking-speed acoustic guitar strum.
8. “Slow Sip of Whiskey” – Eric Barnett. A deep voice and a fingerpicked guitar layered with metaphors aplenty: fans of David Ramirez will rejoice over Barnett’s back-porch country-folk work here.
9. “The Birds and You” – Miles Horn. Fans of indie-soul like the Antlers will find much to love in this stripped-back, romantic, bluesy ballad. The vocal performance here is strong and clear.
10. “The Way to You” – Elliot Porter. Calls to mind Brett Dennen and Passenger, emotional acoustic songwriters who ride the line between folk and adult alternative. Porter’s chorus and big outro are both catchy and impeccably arranged for maximum effect.
11. “Comfortable” – The Washboard Abs. A perfect companion for a rainy day, this loping, downtempo acoustic pop tune has all of the hazy, slackery spirit of lo-fi recording without actually sounding fuzzed out (which I count as a total benefit in this case).
12. “Heartbeat” – Almond&Olive. It’s hard for me to get tired of fingerpicking and close harmonies. This beautiful, relaxing tune comes off like a more folk-oriented version of The Weepies, which is always a good thing. I love the horn inclusion at the end.
13. “If Heaven” – Mystery Loves Company. Ostensibly a song about what the songwriter doesn’t want to see in heaven, the song ends up being a statement of what the band believes is vital and good in the world. The acoustic pop song structure is accompanied by a lovely cello performance.
1. “Schopenhauer in Berlin” – Emperor X. Those who are into singers who cram too many words and so many references into a song and yet somehow come out with indie-pop gold (read The Mountain Goats, the Weakerthans, the Rural Alberta Advantage) will find a huge amount to love in Emperor X. This track is fidgety, subtly chaotic, weirdly emotional, and overall a wild trip that has me absolutely stoked for this record.
2. “Wake Up with the Sun” – Little Lapin. A chipper, summery little ditty that calls to mind Lilith Fair, Counting Crows, and other cheery ’90s acoustic pop. I couldn’t help but clap along. Totally fun.
3. “Hey Leanne” – Frozen Houses. The reverb and rhythms of the guitar recall the ’80s, and specifically Graceland. The flute-esque pad synths are vintage too, but they’ve been so appropriated by Vampire Weekend that there’s a touch of them in here too. But it’s a less hectic song than both of those outfits are fond of, as the lead singer uses a gentle, calming voice to sing long, smooth vocal lines.
4. “Bones” – Fairmont. The kickoff to their 9th (!) studio album, this indignant blast of sound distills what Fairmont does best into 4 minutes and 10 seconds: melodic-yet-somewhat-sinister guitar-driven indie rock with roughed-up vocals and an eye toward the theatrical.
5. “Dynamite Quartz” – Bass Lions. It’s not often that a song puts me at a loss, but this track is a blend of a lot of things that don’t usually go together and yet somehow work perfectly: traditional pipe organ playing, a harpsichord-esque / autoharp thing, ominous subterranean bass notes, strings, perky percussion, and expressive Arcade Fire-style vocals. Or maybe they just feel like Arcade Fire because there’s so much going on. Either way, this is a veritable maelstrom of stuff, and somehow it turns out into a snappy, inventive indie rock tune.
6. “First of May” – James Irwin. Heavily reverbed, distant guitars create a ghostly presence over a fuzzed-out bass chug while Irwin’s feathery vocals intersect the two. The results are a dreamy form of indie rock that is actually equal parts dreamy and rocking.
7. “Screen Time” – Banana Gun. Funk is not my usual stomping grounds, but Banana Gun fuse funky bass lines and a jazz-infused horn section with slick, tight rock music a la Cage the Elephant, et al. (which isn’t usually my province either). Sometimes a song comes out of nowhere and just gets everything right, and even people not in the genre can hear it.
8. “R.O.S.E.” – Brother O’ Brother. Imagine if the Black Keys had never gone stadium rock and instead got more and more furious in their vocal delivery. That’s basically what BOB is, give or take a Marshall stack or three. This track is a pretty great intro to their raw, super-charged garage blues on 11.
9. “Fruitfly” – Heavy Heart. This is a pitch-perfect ’90s female-fronted modern rock tune, which means that it’s low-slung, catchy, and nearly deadpan in its vocal and instrumental delivery. The video is a mishmash of drugs, junk food, pizza, kids, and static that also perfectly recalls the ’90s. It’s the sort of video that has to be done perfectly to not be derivative, and Heavy Heart pulls it off.
10. “Gentle Release” – New Tongues. It’s hard to keep me interested in post-hardcore these days, as I’ve gotten pickier and pickier with the heavy music I listen to. New Tongues are one outfit that I can count on to mix melodic elements, brittle distortion, brute force, hollered/screamed vocals, and long run times in intriguing ways. This latest track is spot-on: a 7.5-minute journey through different dynamic levels and arrangements that yet never feels like it’s overstayed its welcome. Anyone who can write almost eight minutes of post-hardcore work without getting repetitious is doing a great job. Mad props.
11. “Mississippi, Come and Take Me” – Syntax Club. Somewhere between the enthusiasm of Ra Ra Riot, the dreamy vocals of Death Cab for Cutie, and the beachy sound of The Drums is this charmingly layered indie pop song.
12. “STRESS” – Kylie Odetta. Odetta has been reinventing herself over the past few years and seems to have landed on jazzy, piano-led soul. This latest cut mines that vein with some breathy sax playing counterpoint to her hiccuping piano line and lithe vocals.
13. “Eclipsed” – Diamond Thug. This impressive electro song rides on an intriguing arpeggiator pattern and a smooth, flowing, head-bobbing mood (even though the arrangement gets pretty complex!).
14. “Where the Birds Nest” – Alex Tiuniaev. Tiunieav expands his stark solo piano oeuvre into a dreamy ambient electro/chillwave space with some snappy, beat-heavy plunks and blips. It’s a head-bobber, for sure.
Breakup songs are a inextricable part of the American id, and as such they are a dime a dozen. However, sometimes a collection of breakup songs can emerge from the pack by tweaking the formula of “introspective exploration of emotional brokenness” in ways that shine a new light on the situation. Josh Ritter’s The Beast in Its Tracks pulls this trick by focusing on all that happened after the marriage ended, while The Pinkerton Raid‘s Tolerance Ends, Love Begins joins the category by focusing on the specific history of the relationship instead of the narrator’s emotions. These solid lyrics are floated by great indie rock arrangements that call up comparisons to “serious music” like The National and Fleetwood Mac.
While the songs don’t seem to be in strict chronological order, the narrative of a whole relationship can be pieced together from the nine songs of the record. (I’ll leave the details to you, because that’s part what makes this record so engaging.) In that way, it shares some thematic and emotional connections with movies that are interested in the same thing, such as 500 Days of Summer. The most difficult emotional punch of the non-linear chronology comes from the back-to-back listing of the exuberant microcosm (“meet cute“-to-breakup) of “Deeper than Skin” and the tumultuous, angry argument of “Don’t”–it recalls the big leap from “Riches and Wonders” to “The Mess Inside” on The Mountain Goats’ All Hail West Texas. The move seems calculated to show just how high the highs were and how low the lows were. That’s a rare thing from a breakup album.
Even within songs, the focus is shifted off a single narrator. While “we” is invoked in places (“Crazy”), the most intriguing turn lyrically is that both the man and the woman in the relationship get their own songs. This is facilitated by Jesse James DeConto and Katie DeConto sharing lead vocal work throughout the album; sometimes doing a duet (“Deeper than Skin”), but often exclusively in their own tunes (“Don’t,” “Tolerance Ends,” “Ghost in My Bed”). This fills out the album in a unique way, giving it that pop which pushes it beyond a standard breakup album. It’s the idea of the Postal Service’s “Nothing Better” extended over a whole record, which is cool.
The lyrics on their own are almost enough to recommend this record to you, but happily there’s even more to commend. The indie rock that The Pinkerton Raid plays draws on a deep well of minor-key indie rock forebears to form the basis of their work. The band layers dense, marching-band quality horns and the aforementioned excellent vocals of the DeConto siblings on top of these immediately recognizable forms to create whirling, intense tracks. Jesse DeConto is prone to roaring vocal lines (“Righteous Rain,” “Ghost in My Bed”) while Katie DeConto is more incisive and subtle in her delivery; their talents are paired with tunes that play up their strengths.
While “Deeper than Skin” and “Tolerance Ends” are both impressive tunes, it’s “Crazy” where this album really comes together. The DeContos’ vocal performances are intricately intertwined, and the volatile arrangement provides a complex framework that allows both of their vocal strengths to shine. Katie also gets a chance to roar in the chorus, too, which is a bold move. Lyrically the tune draws the listener into the narrators’ complex relationship, focusing on multiple meanings of the word crazy and the fact that we’re all a little crazy at times. The whole thing comes off as a thunderous turn, not dissimilar to Fleetwood Mac’s high-drama work.
The Pinkerton Raid’s Tolerance Ends, Love Begins is not your everyday breakup album. By approaching the lyrics and arrangements from unusual angles, they create a fascinating, unique record.
Serious singer/songwriters have a tough row to hoe, as we’re largely past the point where a great lyric can propel you through bland instrumentation or vice versa. You’ve got to be on your game in both categories to make a dent, because there’s a lot of competition. MAITA is up for the challenge, as Waterbearerstands out in both categories. Her debut EP is a surprisingly complex, unusually assured five-song collection that draws similarities to Kathleen Edwards.
Maita’s assured alto makes the listener feel right at home from the first moment. The ease with which she handles lilting high notes and deft syllabic turns (e.g. the verses of “Geography”) are usually the province of artists with many more releases under their belts. It’s not just the vocals that show unusual maturity: the stark yet engaging arrangements are built around warm, clear acoustic guitar and subtle percussion. The bright, unadorned recording style highlights the vocals, guitar and percussion beautifully. It’s an impressive collection of songs from that angle.
The lyrics are another interesting angle. MAITA’s lyrical sense hews toward the Lady Lamb school of lyrics: there’s a clarity of thought that isn’t obscured by the complexity of language she uses. MAITA’s lyrics focus on relational complexity (“Kinder than Most,” “Too Tired to Love You”) but don’t fall neatly into the “love song” / “break up song” dichotomy that singer/songwriters can sometimes get trapped in when they write about relationships. Between the interesting topics and the precise wording, the lyrics are unusually attractive.
MAITA’s debut is an unusually sophisticated take on singer/songwriter work. The songs are interesting from multiple angles, making for multiple engaging listens. Highly recommended.
Mike Llerena‘s five-song EP Absence & the Heart is a blast of punk-folk adrenaline that fans of The Menzingers will latch onto immediately. I put “punk” in front of “folk” instead of the more common reverse (folk-punk) because Llerena can play folk, but it takes less than thirty seconds into the first song for Llerena to roar “my life’s a wreck” in a throat-shredding yell over punk-rock guitar distortion and tone. “End of the Line” kicks off with a wiry punk-rock guitar melody before dropping into the standard punk-rock guitar chug that has served so well for so many years. “Lady Rock & Roll” is a bit more old-school rock at the beginning, but again, Llerena lurches into full-on punk rock blitz before thirty seconds are up.
These punk rock blasts (complete with the occasional “whoa-oh”) are anchored by Llerena’s insistent tenor, which is in the same vein as The Menzingers’ vocal tone. The melodies share similarities as well. But Llerena is no knock-off; where The Menzingers can ratchet up to snarling tunes, Llerena ratchets down to ballads. Lead single “Rosanna” has an old-school country/rock’n’roll fusion vibe, while “Dear Lonely” is an acoustic ballad that draws equally on the melodic aesthetics of “acoustic songs by punk rockers” and lonesome country tunes.
If you’re looking for some punk rock to get your summer going, Mike Llerena can help you out. But he can also get you a sad song or two, if that’s what you need. Overall, this is a strong demonstration of varied songwriting from Llerena.
I’ve been a big fan of Magic Giant over the past few years as they’ve been releasing singles and online EPs. They’ve finally released a full-length collecting that work and adding in new tunes. In the Windis a fun, bouncy, catchy album of pop-rock, showing how Magic Giant has expanded from a folk-pop outfit heavily reliant on banjo to being a diverse group that can wear many hats.
Magic Giant was always had a bit of dance-rock in them, as the giddy dance-ability of the folk-dance-pop tune “Glass Heart” was what drew me to them. “Glass Heart” is reproduced in a shorter version (no drum circle outro, sadly), but it’s still a blast. Other tunes like “Hideaway” and “Celebrate the Reckless” show off their enthusiastic folk-dance-pop skills that put them in league with Judah and the Lion. But other tunes show off their straight-ahead pop skills, like the thrilling trumpet playing and “na-nas” of “Eyes Wide” and the new-school-Coldplay-esque opener “Jade.” These songs have more in common with Bastille than Mumford and Sons. To round out their abilities, “Nothin’ Left” is a breakup tune that’s straight down the folk-pop pike: it’s all fingerpicked guitar, plucked banjo, three-part harmonies, group vocals, tom percussion, and harmonica (!).
In the Wind is a fun album that would be great on the stereo on a summer road trip. It shows off a wide array of the trio’s skills and sets up a wide-open trajectory for them in the future. At the moment, though, it’s certainly a big collection of summer jams.
Cesaréa is a ten song journey, a blend of western influences and the tales of a true road dog told with a mature lyricism. From the scent of pine trees and small town life in the opening track “The Town Where I’m From” to the simple “In My Thoughts,” listeners are invited into authentic and vulnerable world of Charles Ellsworth via his third full-length release as a solo artist.
There are no mistakes in who crosses someone’s path in life. “Right around the time I turned 22, I was in Las Vegas with a group of some of my oldest friends. On one particularly hungover/still drunk afternoon, I was talking with a friend about how neither of us knew exactly what we wanted to do with our lives. He was about to head to the Peace Corps for a couple years, and I had just gone through a bad band breakup and had decided to go back to Utah to finish my Bachelor’s degree,” said Charles Ellsworth, when asked about the origins of his latest album set to drop May 26th, 2017. It was prior to his emotional musical breakup that this listener first crossed paths with Ellsworth and heard his story. Swearing off music to focus on film, this wandering man was was truly born, more open to the possibilities of life.
Ellsworth grew up in logging country of Arizona’s White Mountains where families are generationally embedded into the land. This simple life instilled in Ellsworth the value of hard work and sacrifice. These values show in songs like “California,” an uptempo Americana folk trip about moving on. Long a favorite at live shows, this mix has created a beast with soaring guitar work from Jon Rauhouse. The beautifully arranged waltz of “Hold On to Me” shows the trust that Ellsworth has in producer Bob Hoag at Flying Blanket Recording (Courtney Marie Andrews, The Format, Gin Blossoms) in Mesa, Arizona. Another song first heard live, this song has been brilliantly transformed into a lush ballad with an elegant tempo and instrumentation: a barn dance for two with the rest of the world listening.
Every path in life comes full circle, allowing the traveler opportunities to get lost along the way. Originally meeting and working with the producer Bob Hoag, the intentional life was born without any realization of the destination at that point. Ellsworth’s friend that joined the Peace Corps gave him a parting gift. “At some point I told him I just wanted to write, play music, and travel the world. I didn’t care about money, I cared about a life spent creating from outside my comfort zone. He suggested that I read The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño. I read it in the final week of the summer before starting school again. It immediately became one of my favorite books, and without realizing it at the time, influenced most of my decisions that have led me to now.”
Being on the road of life is the only way to find new experiences outside one’s comfort zone, in true Tom Waits fashion. “50 Cent Smile” is the first single off Cesaréa. The song is a connection to the man that was and the man that moved to Brooklyn, New York, after years of touring with a guitar. Ellsworth toured with and without his friend Tres Wilson (AKA Shadow Puppet), wandering from Salt Lake City north, west, east, and south to all parts in between. “50 Cent Smile” is a song mirroring the western freewheeling mentality that was inspired by John Steinbeck’s classic East of Eden. Lyrically the song taps into the questions that are posed in the classic American novel, exceptionally relevant in the world today.
“I re-read The Savage Detectives while in the studio last year and was blown away by the fact that I was still doing what I wanted to all those years ago. I decided to name the album Cesaréa after one of the characters in the book. While the album isn’t necessarily about the book, the album wouldn’t exist without it,” says Charles Ellsworth when asked recently about his upcoming album.
“Growing Up Ain’t Easy” and “Dyre Straitz” have a totally different feel for the singer. Giving voice to a more mature musician coming from a place outside of his comfort zone, it’s like the first time you ride the A Train from north Manhattan to south Brooklyn: the thirty-one mile stretch is a lifetime of change. Solid instrumentally, the resonance in Ellsworth’s vocal delivery has matured as well.
Some tracks on Cesaréa have been years in the making, having appeared in other incarnations on previous releases. “Always Looking Twice” is one of those uptempo moments of greatness that happens on this album. A new instrumentation that includes piano, movement and familiar images flickers like a crooked smile at long time fans. With its sprinkling of the road, this song sets up at the entrance to the American songbook.
Heading full circle and out of the album, “Sunday Shoes” is the connective tissue for the lyrics. The arrangement and vocal delivery gives a western strength to a song that has been evolving for years on the road, with roots in the logging country of the Arizona White Mountains where Ellsworth is from. Sprinkled with piano, the city is part of the landscape and the mountains part of the foundation in the music of Charles Ellsworth. There is a strength and confidence in his lyrical craftsmanship, an undeniable thing that cannot really be taught. Like Jason Isbell‘s highly anticipated The Nashville Sound and The American West’s The Soot Will Bring Us Back Again, this album comes out of experience that shape artistic sensibilities.
Now on the third section of his quest, like The Savage Detectives, musician and songwriter Charles Ellsworth is narrator of this story. He combines solo, acoustic, live, and collaborative releases that have culminated in the masterwork of Cesaréa. Ellsworth is destined to join the collection of folk country troubadours that are part of the American songbook.–Lisa Whealy
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.