The members of Red Wood Rising have packed a lot of musical references into their 13-song sophomore collection These Fires. While starting from a folk-rock base, they incorporate elements of timeless anthemic rock (opener “Idle Hands“), ’00s emo (the vocals), hot country (“Down the Old Road”), old-timey bluegrass (“Can’t Figure You Out”), and even smooth jazz (“Deep Within the Ground”). Horns appear throughout, most emphatically on the powerhouse tune “Mark of Cain” and the dramatic “Let Me Carry You.” In their kitchen-sink mentality, they echo bands like Accents that don’t let their way with an acoustic guitar get in the way of including any genre that comes to mind.
These Fires is a long album, and so splitting it in half is a meaningful exercise. The first half is brash, loud, and frenetic; the back half is quiet and chill–but still heavy on drama (“Burning Branches” brings back the anguish of Cain from the first half of the record). It’s tunes like the intimate fingerpicking “On Hold” that will hold the most interest for those of the acoustic persuasion; Isaac Herbert’s soaring, rock-oriented voice is tempered and calmed. If you’re into enthusiastic collections of tunes that don’t shy away from a soaring melody, a huge hook, a new idea (or seven), and interesting juxtapositions, go for Red Wood Rising’s These Fires.
Reina del Cid‘s The Cooling sounds effortless. del Cid can meld her gentle alto voice seamlessly with a warm acoustic guitar and thrumming stand-up bass to create the sort of music that just sounds right. (She can also rock a full band arrangement, too–note the excellent “Mice and Men”).
From opener “Sweet Annie” to “The Fall” to “Morse Code” to closer “Death Cap,” she pulls elements of singer/songwriter, indie-pop, folk, country, and even blues together. The result is an infectious, engaging sound that gives her room to set up her mature, composed vocal and instrumental melodies. There’s a balance between joie de vivre and earthy certainty that results in tunes that feel close to her heart but also not weepy and introspective.
I want to sing along to the tunes, but I also want to sit back and let them hit me. It’s “Morse Code” where this hits hardest: it’s a break-up song with a sort of spurned-lover disaffection (famous of female country tunes) poured into a gentle guitar strum that falls somewhere between folk and indie-pop. Her voice has some gentle reverb on it that give it some depth, but the earnest melody could have carried it on its own. The lyrics shine as well, taking a different tack on the tried-and-true subject material.
The Cooling is one of the most enjoyable records I’ve heard all year: you can love it at multiple levels, and that makes for great listening. If you’re interested in Ingrid Michaelson, Regina Spektor, or other innovative singer/songwriters, you need Reina del Cid in your ear.
I’m all about alt-country, which is a deceptively hard genre to get right. You can’t lean too country, or too indie, or too singer/songwriter. Red Sammy walks the line between all of these with a tune that’s equal parts Tom Waits, Counting Crows, and Jayhawks.
Adam Trice’s rough vocals aren’t the only place that Waits comparisons fit: “Sometimes You Forget What’s Real” is a long, walking-speed tune that relies heavily on a world-weary mood to compel listeners’ ears. There’s a genial, earnest feel to the guitar that calls up August and Everything After-era Counting Crows, while the weeping electric guitar gives the tune a big ‘ol “alt-country” stamp not too far from the Jayhawks’ work. Extra bonus: Mountain Goats-quality yawps at the end of the vocals’ contributions. The whole tune comes together so beautifully that it’s hard to believe that it’s over 6 minutes long. If you’re into old-school, loose folk/country jams or any of the previous acts, this tune will perk your ears up.
“Sometimes You Forget What’s Real” is the lead single on an upcoming album, set to drop Fall 2015.
I’m a big believer in seasonal music, and it doesn’t get more summery than Coma Girls’ “Runaround.” The tune has the teen energy and vocal harmonies of ’60s surf-pop, the noisy enthusiasm of pop-punk, and the organ-heavy arrangements of a surf-punk tune. There’s nothing I’ve heard so far this year that makes me want to head to the beach more than this.
The tune starts off with a rad bass line that segues into a twirly, arpeggiated organ line, sandwiching a clanging distorted guitar somewhere in there. The vocals, a mix of Beach Boys melodies and modern hollering, come in and add even more infectious quality to this. The lyrics are about a girl who runs around with every boy in town but the narrator–a tried and true problem of surf-pop tunes (and, let’s face it, all pop tunes). Whoa-ohs are had. Back-up vocals add their value. It does pretty much everything you could ask of a summery pop song with vintage vibes. That’s why I’m stoked that I get to premiere the track. Jump on this one for all your summer mixtapes, mix CDs, and playlists.
Imagine you are asleep and in that sleep, you have a dream. The dream takes place most likely in space and it feels all jumbled, yet makes total sense in the same moment. This is what it feels like to listen to Quebec mastermind Guillaume Guilbault and his band Constance. Their latest EP One will leave you floating on a cloud in the land of space-like dreams, and you will never want to come down.
As I continue to replay the instrument-packed four-track EP over and over again, I realize that One puts its listeners in such a trance that it’s as if it is impossible to stop pressing repeat. The first song “Trinity, NL” opens into a mystic trance accomplished through space-like synthetic beats, acoustic guitar and the awe-inspiring hand saw. Harmonica adds another layer to the intro; after Guilbault’s voice enters, the piano quickly follows up. Soon enough, the cello and soft drums round out the instrumentation. “Trinity, NL” is clearly instrument-driven, allowing many of the instruments to shine with their own solos. Yet Guilbault uses his voice as yet another part of the instrumentation. His voice adds to the mystic feel via its calming effects, similar to the way Bon Iver uses his soothing voice. At the end of the track, many of the instruments drop off–only Guilbault’s voice, the cello, and hand-saw are left to gently close out the song.
“Chambre Noir” continues on with the dreamy feel, with the addition of French lyrics. Although less complex than the previous song, a driving percussive beat along with gentle guitar strumming and appearances from the hand-saw make up the meat of this track. What this track lacks in number of instruments, it makes up in beautiful French words. Although not every listener may understand the lyrics (myself included), they certainly add to the surreal nature of the EP. I mean, what woman doesn’t want a man singing french words to her on top of beautiful instrumentation? Only the stuff of dreams.
Continuing with the theme of surreal love, “Argentina” is an adorable love song with lyrics like, “I carry this feeling/I will never be near you enough/but to make our time truly matter to us/why don’t we go to Argentina?” The choice of primarily guitar and piano accompaniment add to the sweet feel of the song and allow Guilbault’s voice to stand out so that the lyrics are very audible. A harmonica solo serves as an echo of Guilbault’s voice and brings the song to a gentle close. What lingers the last few seconds is pure synth transition, entering smoothly into the fourth and final track.
“Lilac” begins with electronic plumes of relaxation. Gentle drums and soothing strings quickly enter into the instrumentation and continue on in calming repetition. One unique way that this track adds to the dream is through vocal echoing, making the listener feel as though voices are coming at you from all sides. You might think that this would make the track sound confusing and jumbled, but it is carried out in such a well-done way that it feels much more surreal than jumbled.
As One comes to a close, it reminds us that all dreams must end. But that doesn’t mean you can’t press replay and experience it all over again. Constance’s One is one that you will want to hold onto and never let go. Just press play, close your eyes, and enter into his alt-folk dream world. —Krisann Janowitz
I don’t think anything else would sound equally fitting as a horror flick soundtrack than Nightmare Fortress’s debut album The Wanting. I mean this with the utmost awe for the Seattle quartet’s ability to package such huge soundscape range into a dark pop/electronic record.
Alicia Amiri is like Florence Welch’s gothic sister. Full of alto depth that pairs well with her foreboding lyrics, Amiri’s voice embodies the album’s enticing gloom. “You can’t control what history knows/Disgrace, cover your face/Trying to hide what daylight knows,” she sings on opener “No Exit,” which makes clear that unapologetic exposure is a theme of this album.
The Wanting has strong gothic style with splatters of synth-pop and dance-ready beats, exemplified on “The Perfect Feeling” and “Crawl to Me.” “The Perfect Feeling” gets you amped-up on red lip-stained sassiness and don’t-mess-with-me attitude of which Amiri is a poster child. With the use of heavy organ, think modern-day Phantom of the Opera visits a warehouse party and fits right in. “Crawl to Me,” a dance-rock track, proclaims like an anthem with Amiri’s bold lyrics. Her opening line, “There’s a place where it always rains and when you’re ready to die/Just stand outside, mouth open,” is no doubt deserving of your attention.
The more dungeon-like tracks on the album include “Mourning Star,” which focuses on a man’s decline, and “After Death.” “After Death” builds suspense with a strong repetitive rhythm like the sound of someone stomping down an empty hallway, dramatized condensation dripping from a low ceiling, and then an eerie, escalating choir echo in the background.
Don’t think The Wanting is only meant for those attracted to the darker side, though. The atmospheric mood of “Terminal” and trance qualities of “Crusher” weigh on the opposite end of the spectrum. “Crusher” includes an array of sonic texturing, such as dial-tone synth and bouts of air being pressed and ushered over bass like overworked machinery in an engine room.
“A Life Worth Leaving” is a standout on The Wanting. With a blend of atmospheric guitar, bouncy rhythm, and 80s-esque vocals, it’s a testament to anyone who has ever known they deserved better in any relationship. “Scratching at my door, like a dog, always begging me for more,” Amiri sings, having no problem admitting, “Either way, you’re going to miss me when I’m gone.” Amiri is matter-of-fact, and it’s this cool admittance throughout the record that makes The Wanting so captivating.
Nightmare Fortress’s debut album leaves you strangely refreshed in its bluntness. Between Alicia Amiri’s scarlet-colored vocals and the band’s unique take on darkwave, get ready for something ghostly thrilling. —Rachel Haney
1. “Keep It Coming” – Topher Mohr. It’s hard to write a timeless pop song, but Mohr has put together a wonder of a tune that feels like it could have come out of the ’70s AM Radio scene or the mid-’00s MGMT-esque pop stuff. It’s just a great track all around.
2. “Ice Fishing” – The Cairo Gang. The sort of guitar-rock tune that splits the difference between classic rock, Beatles pop, and San Fran garage rock with ease. Between God? and Burger (and its many offshoots) Records, it feels like we’re in a genuine moment for hooky garage rock.
3. “Sugar Coated” – Jessie Jones. It sounds like everyone, from the bassist to the drummer to the vocalist, is having fun on this hooky garage-rock track.
4. “Timepiece” – Ripple Green. Classic rock guitar and vocals meet a radio-ready modern pop chorus, putting a foot in each world.
5. “Dusty Springfield” – The Fontaines. A little bit of indie-rock, a little bit of ’50s girl-pop, a whole lot of catchy.
6. “Long Way Down” – Vienna Ditto. Minor-key surf-punk? Why not? Vienna Ditto own it, complete with whirring organ, honking saxes, and frantic tom rolls.
7. “Big Bright World” – Jeremy Pinnell. This is about as authentic as country gets: western swing rhythms, weeping pedal still, deep-voiced sadness, and a narrator with a former(?) drug problem. Still, the sun shines through, just like the title suggests.
8. “The Night Before” – No Dry County. You don’t have to sound like Bob Wills to catch my ear with a country tune; this modern country tune has a great melody, a solid arrangement, and an evocative vocal performance. It’s like a country Jimmy Eat World, maybe.
9. “Soaring” -WindfallFound. Post-rock of the beauty-inclined variety, complete with distant, processed vocals, Appleseed Cast-style.
10. “She Knows It” – Shannen Nicole. Goes from “ooh” to “whoa” in no time flat: starts off as a dusky torch song, then amps up to a thunderous torcher by the end. A formidable performance.
11. “The Gold Standard” – Marrow. The Hold Steady’s wry, jubilant mantra “Gonna walk around and drink some more” drops the jubilant part here: this low-slung, slow-build indie-rock tune has a woozy calm that belies the sort of difficult, composed walking that comes of one too many drinks.
1. “All I Can Give” – Haring. Chillwave forever: bright synth washes, gentle beats, and burbling melodies. Chillwave forever,
2. “Petrol Station” – Sorcha Richardson. Right when I think that I can’t take one more downtempo electro-pop tune, Sorcha Richardson renews my faith in the genre. This is slinky, groove-laden, and funky in all the best senses of those terms. Her vocals are just so smooth.
3. “Outro (Entry Code, Dial Tone)” – Heart/Dancer. Warm, refreshing, and intimate electro pop; the male/female vocals remind of Chairlift or Mates of State.
4. “Everything” – Wall of Trophies. Brittany Jean and Will Copps return as Wall of Trophies, showing off their particular skills: whirlwinds of artsy electronic/acoustic sound marshaled by Jean’s acrobatic vocals and passionate delivery. The sonic conclusion at the end of the tune will raise your eyebrows.
5. “Surrender” – Briana Marela. Somewhere between the intimate voice morphing of Imogen Heap and the cinematic vocal loops of Julianna Barwick lies Briana Marela. “Surrender” is a burbling electro/acoustic track that relies on complex beats, layers of sounds, and delicate/feathery melodies.
6. “Ready 2 Wear” – Loveskills. What would dance music sound like if there were no drum machines or synths? That’s the question Loveskills admirably tackles here, creating a bouncy, infectious track out of piano, finger snaps, strings, and intriguing vocals. This is a great pop song.
7. “Wavering Down” – Kasey Keller Big Band. Starts off as an abstract, outsider electronic piece, ends in a bit of a hooky electro jam–all in under 90 seconds.
1. “Goldface” – Tussilago. This indie-pop tune just feels effortless: Tussilago slides along with a bass groove, a low-key dance vibe, and a great melody. It’s the sort of song that you forget when you heard it the first time: it seems timeless, like it’s always been there.
2. “Break the Chain” – Ultimate Painting. Classic popcraft here, hearkening back to songsmiths like McCartney, Lennon, and Nilsson.
3. “No More Hits” – The ZZips. Do you miss slacker acoustic/funk/groove Beck? Hit up the ZZips, who clearly do as well: the clattering beats and gentle acoustic guitar come together via the funky bass and chiming electric guitar.
4. “Firefly” – Jeremy Bass. The press for this says bossa nova, but all I hear is smooth, gentle acoustic pop with a genuine, earnest vocal performance. It sounds like the sun was shining when he wrote this one.
5. “A Weaker One” – The Henrys. Sometimes I just like a song, and don’t want to kill it with definition. Chill out to this calm, excellent acoustic tune.
6. “Mountain” – Crooked House Road. I know Mumford & Sons kinda killed the market on indie-rock/folk fusions, but I’m surprised that more people haven’t taken Nickel Creek’s bluegrass/indie-rock fusion route. Crooked House Road goes that direction, adding in some klezmer flair and dramatic female lead vocals as well.
7. “Austin” – Tyler Boone. There’s some sweet pedal steel action on this modern country tune, featuring (who else?) a down-and-out narrator.
8. “Eastern Time” – Runner of the Woods. Here’s a tune that appeals to all the old-school country vibes that it can: weeping pedal steel, plain vocals, and bouncy piano (with some John Denver twinkles thrown in). It comes together into a swaying, smile-inducing whole.
9. “Our Garden” by Fox Street. If Ray LaMontagne got a little more Needtobreathe Southern rock in his blood, he could have written this tune. Passionate, raspy vocals meet wailing organ in a mid-tempo ballad.
10. “Too Little Too Late” – Mi’das. I’ve been getting a ton of soulful songs thrown my way recently. Mi’das stands above the pack by delivering not just his vocals but his expressive guitar playing.
11. “Money in the Evenings” – Hermit’s Victory. This white-boy slow jam has a Iron & Wine rustic feel (just the vibe, not the arrangement), while maintaining its own flavor through the accents and Tyler Bertges’ unusual, carefree vocals.
12. “Tz, Ka” – Inner Tongue. More soulful slow jams, but with some major synth contributions that give this also a bit of a dance vibe. It’s, at least, super re-mix ready. The head-bobbing vibe is hard to beat on this one.
13. “Sadie” – Gold Star. Slurry, emotional, and passionate, this vocals-led tune dances around the genres of country, slow-core, and singer/songwriter. Whatever you call it, it grabbed my attention immediately.
Portland singer/songwriter Johanna Warren oozes raw talent with her latest album nūmūn. Nūmūn shows off Warren’s undeniable musical talent by highlighting her soaring sopranic voice, thought-provoking lyrics and eerie psychedelic folk instrumentation. Picking up Warren’s latest album, nūmūn, will definitely get you intrigued and wanting more.
Warren’s voice is both a comforting storyteller and a soaring songbird. Beginning with the first song, “Black Moss,” Warren shows off both of these vocal qualities. In the song’s’ verses, Warren’s voice plays the role of the meek storyteller with hearty undertones that distinguishes her voice from others. Then, once she reaches the song’s bridge and chorus, her voice seamlessly soars to high notes that many of us could only dream of reaching. The only comparable voice that I can think of is that of Jesca Hoop, whose early albums similarly had a psychedelic folk sound. “Black Moss” also nonchalantly covers the topic of death in the lyrics with the repeated line, “but soon black moss will cover over my dead body.”
Her thought-provoking lyrics mainly center around humanity and spirituality. Covering the topic of human nature, “The Wheel” seems to be a conversation with pain, as her opening question is, “O pain, why are you here again?” In “Noise,” Warren repeatedly sings that “God has plans but I’ve got mine,” proving to be the perfect example of how Warren subtly covers both God and human nature in her lyrics. “Noise” also shows how Warren can casually throw unique twists and turns into her interesting instrumentation.
The instrumentation on nūmūn is mainly made up of the acoustic guitar, but here and there other instruments and sounds are introduced in a way that best fits with the genre of psychedelic folk. “Noise” has appearances from laughing girls, rustling wind, and what sounds like the scraping together of silverware. “The Wheel” seems to include rustling pieces of metal repeating throughout the song.
“Apogee” is a non-vocal interlude occurring at the middle of the album. It begins in a sort of trance and reintroduces the scraping of silverware and rustling metal, as well as another which seems like glasses gently colliding. The off-kilter instrumentation of “Apogee” comes together to make a very eerie interlude. It’s a perfect fit to highlight the eerie undertones found throughout the rest of the album, through the weird sounds, ghostly harmonization, and even certain ways Warren plays her guitar. This “eerie” quality found in her instrumentation is a sure sign of psychedelic folk influence.
Johanna Warren clearly is both a talented vocalist and musician, as shown through her latest album nūmūn. If you have not yet encountered the euphoric experience of a psychedelic folk album, then look no further. Warren’s unique instrumentation, earthy lyrics, and gorgeous voice will certainly entrance you. —Krisann Janowitz
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.