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.
After nearly twenty years of performing, Oklahoma’s Travis Linville has performed worldwide from dive bars to festivals to YouTube music shows to television appearances on CMT and The Tonight Show. Stepping to the front of the stage with his country-and-blues-tinged indie folk, Linville is set to release Up Ahead February 3, 2017.
To support his constantly evolving skill as a songwriter, Linville enlisted the help of studio musicians who have also performed with him live. David Leach (John Fullbright) joins on upright bass, Ryan Jones (Oklahoma Opry) plays keys, and two diverse percussionists round out the sound: Matt Duckworth (Flaming Lips, Miley Cyrus) and Mike Meadows (Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson). Linville himself performed all vocals, guitars, lap steel, pedal steel, mandolin, and dobro. The result is a well-crafted piece of art in the form of a ten-song trip down a country lane.
Listeners can almost smell the “Flowers in Your Hair,” smelling the rain as it falls in some skilled mandolin from Linville. Working subtly, the lyricism has a folk Americana flair. Shifting to a more indie feel, “Wishes” still paints with vivid cinematic imagery: authentic and real. Linville is a skilled multi-instrumentalist who is great at pulling in other talents: Jones steps in on keys during “Two Times the Fool,” pulling the stroll into an introspection that everyone can relate to. Nearly halfway through the album, mid-tempo road trip “Finding My Way” is driven more by bass, percussion, and slide guitar.
Country influences are king on “Bar Room,” as the sly humor of Linville’s songwriting is blatantly cool here. You can almost smell the stale beer and sawdust on the floor. The birth of some great music took place in the dingy places, and this song has that East Texas drawl. A great songwriter makes the listener feel, and “Fade to Winter” is a great transition. Sequencing and an intelligent mix makes this song a stronger statement than maybe it started out as lyrically.
“Up Ahead” is the title track for a reason. It encompasses all elements of this musician, from his influences to his experiences: Okie music is influenced strongly by all genres from Texas country to the Nashville sound. This is a beautiful way to start wandering down the road out of this album. “Waltz Ahead” is a slow dance, plain and simple–and that is its beauty. It is is the only song in three quarter time on the album, making it stand out with even more emphasis. Taking that stand-out quality to the next level, “Going Down Easy” is a showcase of musicianship with a solid blues vibe. “Worried Mind” caps off this acclaimed solo release.
Rich with textures, Up Ahead is a soulful and authentic sensory journey of an everyman with a guitar. After this release, listeners will hear the beauty of his truth standing in the spotlight. Get a copy today.–Lisa Whealy
1. “Drop a Pebble” – Cálido Home. The rhythms, melodies and arresting female vocal tone create a skipping, dancing, beautifully complex acoustic tune. The melodies are particularly memorable.
2. “Take Me Home” – Nick Nash. A straight-ahead alt-country song with strong vocals is the vehicle for some working-class musings that Jason Isbell would love: “Give me a Jesus that I know, not the one you say I never will / Give me the ignorant working saints, not the enlightened rich with their fame.” The rest follows suit; really great writing here.
3. “Autumn Moon” – Johnny Nobles. The chorus melodies here are lovely: the lead melody dips low against a counterpoint harmony that soars gently upwards. The strings that come in right after seal the deal on this singer/songwriter tune.
4. “The Courageous Getaway of Ciro and Madalina Fuentos” – Keith Monacchio. The lyrics here are the centerpiece, detailing a compelling, emotion-filled tale of danger and fear. The tune is part of the Rock against Hate charity compilation.
5. “One Day” – Alex Hedley. Hedley’s voice is evocative and emotive over rippling, smooth acoustic guitar.
6. “Will to Abide” – Nathan Andrew Jones. A swooning fiddle and keening pedal steel are sweet counterpoint to an earnest melody and “weary love” lyric in this (alt?) country tune.
7. “Merry Margaret” – David and Brittany Farkas. The mandolin and baritone male vocal give this full-band folk tune an unusual, intriguing sound.
8. “State of Grace” – Last Builders of Empire. One section of a longer song cycle about the afterlife, this post-rock tune sets an elegant mood that reflects the title, but with a bit of distortion and grit to ground it.
9. “Baracus” – Moyamoya. The enigmatic and attractive album art for this song belies the tensions in it: The guitar riffs are really wiry and brittle for a post-rock tune, the tune has a sort of optimistic cast in the key, and the percussion keeps a lockstep beat reminiscent of krautrock. But, right when confusion reaches maximum, a wall of sound appears. So there’s something for every post-rock fan here.
10. “Idle” – Sthlm Falls. Without the searing lead melody, this would be a rolling acoustic guitar composition; without the guitar, this would be a minimalist ambient piece. Together, it’s not quite either thing, creating its own place in the world.
11. “Folds” – Nathan Shubert. The delicate, precise, rushing nature of the piano here makes the keys almost sound like pizzicato strings. The clicking of the keys as they hit and the moving of parts make this an intimate yet oddly intense piece. It’s powerful but in a restrained mood; it’s full of energy but sounds just as much like a rippling river as the rush of people in a subway station. It’s gorgeous.
1. “Seventeen” – 3D Friends. A wistful power-pop tune that kept me on the edge of my seat for a lot of the song, wondering “What’s going to come around the corner?”
2. “Damage” – TeamMate. Dance-oriented indie rock that’s somewhere between MGMT and Grouplove. In other words, it’s the audio equivalent of a confetti cannon.
3. “Walk Away” – Delta & Dawn. There’s some Bastille in this punchy pop song. The more obscure reference (but one that I can’t shake) is a distinctly Relient K-esque mesh between the chorus vocal melody and the electric guitars.
4. “Darkerside” – //AMISTAD//. Attitude-laden rap-singing leads the way through an ominous electro-pop environment; it’s not the type of thing I’m generally into, but the vocals just fit so perfectly against the synth backdrop.
5. “Quiet” – MILCK. Pulls off the neat trick of seeming more like an electro-pop tune than it actually is, as this piano-led pop tune is built on a trilling chorus vocal melody, thumping percussion, and strong female empowerment lyrics.
6. “Go There” – Small Forward. This is all the best elements of ’90s and early ’00s indie-rock thrown into one great tune: hazy guitar chimes, sweetness in the vocal melodies, punchy drums, quiet/loud/quiet dynamics, and an overall mood of slackery but good-natured chill. It’s just fantastic. Also, the band name is a basketball reference and I dig it.
7. “Faux Depart” – Cyclope Espion. I’m on a French kick recently; the rhythmic patterns of their language are different than English, which intrigues my ear. This folk-pop/pop-rock tune sounds like early Counting Crows, but with a saxophone and (yes) French language lyrics.
8. “Alcaline” – Laura Lefebvre. This French-language tune pours the rhythms into American indie rock-style melodies; if you don’t listen too closely, you can’t even tell its French. The arrangement is tight and lithe as well–particularly in the percussion–making this an impressive indie-rock tune.
9. “Pages” – Magana. Fans of Wye Oak will love this subtle, textured, serious, female-fronted, guitar-oriented indie rock.
I didn’t listen too much to The Damnwells, but those who did are well acquainted with frontman Alex Dezen. He’s recently gone solo, giving him freedom to experiment with sounds. The whole album is intriguing, with Dezen exploring swampy rock’n’roll, synth-pop, folk-pop, indie-pop, and more. All of it is built around his lithe, assured vocal delivery; no matter what the vehicle, Dezen’s vocals and melodies shine.
That’s true of “Everything’s Great (Everything’s Terrible),” where Dezen pulls off Graceland-style African-influenced pop with ease. Fans of Paul Simon’s masterpiece will find themselves headbobbing along to Dezen’s long vocal lines, extended verse lengths, and bubbly arrangements. The melodies are chipper, sunny, and smile-inducing, which (purposefully) contrasts with the less-happy lyrics. (Much, as you may remember, Paul Simon did in Graceland.)
This isn’t a rip-off, though–Dezen’s melodic sensibility pushes through the instruments and the vocals, keeping up the unique flavor that sets it apart from other artists and meshes it with the rest of the album. As with Graceland, the instrumental musicianship should not be lost amid the joie de vivre of the melodies and the complexity of the lyrics against that backdrop. The arrangement sells this song with consummate, professional ease. Dezen’s instrumental prowess shows here, as he plays almost all the parts on this track. Overall, the tune is a blast of pop that you just can’t beat on a warm day.
Dezen’s album II drops February 3 on Poor Man Records. You can pre-order it here.
1. “Savannah, Abandoned” – Lewis Dalgliesh. Shades of Jeffrey Lewis’s lyrical specificity and rapid-fire delivery play out over delicate, fingerpicked acoustic guitar. The rsults are a wonderful, Fionn Regan-style indie-pop tune.
2. “Letter for Ty” – ALFIE. The intertwining of two female voices and the bright production on this pristine acoustic pop tune make me think of another Scandinavian folk duo: First Aid Kit. Highly recommended.
3. “So Close” – Mama Ghost. A lovely, engaging alto voice leads the way in this excellent folk/singer-songwriter tune. The guitar, lead vocals, and harmony vocals mesh perfectly into an enveloping mood.
4. “Get On Your Skates” – Sandtimer. The gravitas of the vocal tone and delivery transforms a smooth acoustic tune into a stellar tune reminiscent of Alexi Murdoch.
5. “War on the Move” – Nice Motor. Hits all the right notes for a modern folk/alt-country shuffle: great vocals, lush harmonies, traditional (but not too traditional) arrangement, and overall good vibes.
6. “Caroline” – Johnny Nobles. Those who love James Taylor will find much to love in this light, slightly sad acoustic work.
7. “Eagle” – Noel. Brimming with tension but also exuding patience, this mesmerizing ambient/neo-classical piece is built on organ-like synth drone and beautifully airy lead synth.
8. “First Dance” – Doc Yates and the Kings Evil. The vocal melodies of this romantic ballad have a timeless quality to them, as if drawn from ’50s pop, old folk tunes, and/or modern indie pop.
9. “Head Over Heels” – Finn Kleffmann. Fuses acoustic Britpop vibes from the ’90s with modern acoustic pop melodies (and folk-pop “hey!”s). It’s suave and strong.
10. “Fa Fa Fa Fired” – Ryan Oxford. Lots of songwriters want to emulate The Beach Boys, but few do it as well as Oxford does here. The production is spot-on Pet Sounds (with some modern upgrades), but it’s the charming vocal melodies and delivery that sell this one.
1. “Step into the Darkness” – Said the Whale. Sometimes an indie-pop just emerges full-formed, bursting out of the sea with sophisticated arrangements, catchy melodies, intriguing lyrics, and smooth production. Easily one of the best pop songs I’ve heard so far this year.
2. “The Worst in You” – Tyto Alba. Slow-burning track that opens up as a moody indie rock before expanding into a pounding rock conclusion.
3. “Bone Collector” – Julian Lage & Chris Eldridge. A unique acoustic guitar duo creating unique, rhythmically intriguing instrumental music.
4. “Demons” – I.am.hologram. This inventive, satisfyingly unclassifiable 9-minute journey is triangulated from points in post-rock, blues/folk guitar, and indie rock.*
5. “Smash and Grab” – Christopher Giffard. A funky, jazzy, left-hand-heavy instrumental jam that had me head-bobbing from the get-go. There’s a lot going on in this piece, so stick around for the development.
6. “Sal” – K O L T B A C H. Slinky, lithe, and deliciously low-key, this instrumental electro jam is perfectly arranged for maximum effect without hitting any cliches.
7. “Souvenir” – Oh Geronimo. If you’ve ever been in a band that broke up, you’re going to want to listen to this acoustic ballad in a dark room away from people. It nails how I felt when band members moved on; honest, raw, and heartbreaking.
8. “Fancy Footwork” – Les Bohem. Good news for people who love sad news: this is pristine sad music. Consider: this chipper-sounding tune is one of the happiest on the whole double album. If you love sad things, you need to get on this immediately.
9. “Proverba Infero” – Mouse Dog Bird. Slowcore minimalist tendencies, but with the vocals front and center instead of off in the corner somewhere.
*Full disclosure: The PR agent for I.am.hologram, Lisa Whealy, writes for Independent Clauses.
Closing out 2016 with a free download of their EP Joshua Tree, the cacophony of sound that is Moon Hooch throws down a bold statement: Just dance. The EP is a simple thank you to fans for a widely successful year that included sell-out shows across Europe and the United States, along with critical acclaim for Red Sky.
“We rented a house and set up a little studio in the Mojave desert just outside of Joshua Tree National Park,” explains Wenzl McGowen. “We got together in the same room with our instruments and said, ‘Let’s just hit it’ and started playing whatever came to our minds. Somehow this process created eight songs. Don’t ask us where they came from, but we certainly enjoyed bringing them to this planet.”
Drenched in the surreal quality of the Joshua Tree environment, this EP opens with “Sandstorm,” hitting that desert rave on fire. Overarching melodies from the swirling horns repeat with a precision that is cohesive in its chaos, like desert sands–each minute but necessary. “Dancing Dwarf” brings it in a notch but still has that controlled lullaby of screaming saxophone. (It’s been said that the saxophone is the closest instrument to the human voice.) Not needing to be jazz or fusion allows Moon Hooch to just be. No explanations needed.
Stalking out of the party, “Mountain Lion” sprinkles in the middle eastern flavor that has influenced much of the band’s evolution, philosophy, and social consciousness. The dance party slides in to create the shout of “Jiggle.” Melodic sax soars and shouts lyrics with a staccato, jazz-infused mayhem that bringings to mind the roaring twenties. Hitting a stride halfway through, twisting and stealthy, spiraling into another dimension, is a final crazy “Criminals” breakdown.
To explain “Improv Intro” seems silly. Just listen. The three musicians demonstrate the skill and brotherhood that has developed, as each fit a groove. “Improv” feels like a creation from another universe and quite possibly is. This fusion of metal, jazz, experimental, and improvisation brings chills in an auditory freak-out that feels oh so good.
“Ballad” is a close your eyes and dream moment on rapid fire release, a brief sensory experience. “Outer Urge” brings to a close a journey that is a gift to experience. Looping back around to the beginning with familiar composition is an intriguing skill that Moon Hooch keeps in their arsenal. Regardless the point is above all else: just dance. —Lisa Whealy
Moon Hooch will hit the road on both coasts and abroad in 2017, starting in February:
February 1 – Washington, DC – U Street Music Hall
February 2 – Morgantown, WV – Main Stage
February 3 – Columbus, OH – Winter Werk Out
February 4 – Ferndale, MI – Otus Supply
February 8 – Buffalo, NY – Buffalo Iron Works
February 9 – Saranac Lake, NY – Waterhole
February 10 – Burlington, VT – Higher Ground
February 11 – Northampton, MA – Pearl Street Clubroom
February 12 – Hamden, CT – The Ballroom @ Outer Space
February 18 – Brooklyn, NY – Brooklyn Bowl
February 22 – Santa Cruz, CA – The Catalyst Atrium
February 23 – Chico, CA – Lost On Main
February 24 – San Francisco, CA – The Fillmore
February 25 – Petaluma, CA – Mystic Theatre
February 28 – Charlottesville, VA – The Jefferson
March 1 – Charleston, SC – Pour House
March 2 – Tampa, FL – Crowbar
March 3 – Gainesville, FL – Changeville Festival
March 4 – Tallahassee, FL – The SideBar Theatre
June 2 – Oslo, NO – Nattjazz Festival
September 22 – Thornville, OH – Resonance Music & Arts Festival
Ah, 2017! I’m pleased to be starting the new year with a fantastic song to premiere.
MAITA is a Portland-based songwriter who has turned out an exciting chamber-folk tune in “Kinder than Most.” MAITA’s lilting alto leads the way: her range and notes are carefully controlled, but the engaging, intriguing swoops and leaps of her vocal melodies give the song a bit of a woozy cast. The arrangement is almost the definition of chamber-folk, as pizzicato strings, precise-yet-round bass, gentle percussion, and subtle acoustic guitar mesh together into an arrangement that feels by turns spartan and lush.
It would be a crime not to mention the excellent engineering here, which takes all these beautiful parts and makes them sound as if they’re happening a foot away from me. In that way, it’s a fully realized song: the vocals, arrangement, and engineering all come together perfectly to create a top-shelf tune. Fans of Dana Sipos’ stark folk will find much to love here, while fans of My Brightest Diamond will hear echoes that draw them in (albeit folky echoes).
“Kinder than Most” comes from Maita’s debut EP Waterbearer, which comes out 1/27. You can pre-order it now. I’m very much looking forward to reviewing the full release shortly.